Opponents of a 20-year effort to open four new uranium mines near two Navajo tribal communities in New Mexico have taken their case to the Supreme Court in what many see as a final bid to stop the highly controversial project.
The groups, the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining and the Southwest Research and Information Center, argue that the mines would contaminate the drinking water for 15,000 Navajo residents in and around the communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint. Both towns lie just outside the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.
In March, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has issued a license for the mine to Hydro Resources Inc., had adequately considered the potential effects of the project in its analysis and included sufficient environmental safeguards.
Eric Jantz, an attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is representing the Navajo groups, said the communities still believe the project could harm local residents, both through contaminated water and elevated levels of radiation in the air, and are hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case.
"It's been a very frustrating and long road, but we won't back down," added Larry King, who serves on the board of Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, and lives in the area.
The groups' Supreme Court appeal, filed Sept. 15, follows the 10th Circuit's rejection of a request for a rehearing on issues surrounding the NRC license.
NRC granted the license to Hydro Resources -- a subsidiary of Texas-based Uranium Resources Inc. -- in 1999. The company plans to use an in-situ type of uranium extraction it says has distinct advantages over traditional mining. For example, in-situ mining leaves uranium ore in the ground and recovers the minerals by dissolving the ore and pumping the solution to the surface.
The process, now widely used to mine uranium, generates no tailings, but operations need to be located "so that they do not contaminate ground water away from the ore body," according to the World Nuclear Association (Land Letter, April 24, 2008).
Prices for uranium, now hovering around $60 per pound under long-term contracts and $48 per pound on the spot market, have risen in recent years with growing interest in nuclear power as an alternative to greenhouse gas-emitting energy sources like coal.
Opponents of NRC's licensing of Hydro Resources' New Mexico mines contend the agency should have evaluated radiation emissions from existing waste piles in the area, including tailings left from past uranium mining dating back decades. They also argue that NRC failed to require adequate protections for groundwater from the new mines.
An environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project acknowledged that no similar operation has fully restored groundwater quality to pre-mining conditions. But Rick Van Horn, senior vice president of operations for Uranium Resources said the company received a requested designation from U.S. EPA that prohibits the aquifer from being used as a drinking water source. That means the company will have to treat the water until it is safe enough for livestock or irrigation use, but not for human consumption, he said.
"After mining is complete, we stop the injection of oxygen, we send it through a reverse osmosis unit and we remove the various salts that are in the water, the various constituents that are in the water as a result of mining, and take the clean water and flush it back underground," Van Horn explained.
"The one thing we know is it will not be drinking water, because we have a drinking water exemption that says that it will not be," he added. "We have to have that before we can mine."
The company will have to demonstrate that it can sufficiently restore water quality to livestock or irrigation standards before it can begin the next phase of the mining operation, he added.
Furthermore, radiation levels in the air will not change because the company will use "down flow columns" to send radiation back underground, he said.
"There will be no radiation emitted," Van Horn said.
Uranium Resources still must renew its outdated underground injection control permit, a task that will be undertaken by the New Mexico Environment Department after a separate June court ruling determined that the renewal should be handled by the state instead of EPA, since the proposed mine sites are not located in Indian country.
EPA typically has jurisdiction over reviews of such projects on tribal lands, but the company successfully argued that the 160-acre parcel, called Section 8, is not legally part of the Navajo reservation because the federal government had not specifically designated it as Indian land. Though once part of Indian country, the plot's status was changed by a presidential executive order in 1911 (Greenwire, June 16).
Critics are concerned that New Mexico's regulatory oversight will not be as stringent as what would be provided by EPA.
Hydro Resources is working to complete a feasibility study for the project, expected next year, and hopes to open the first mine in 2013, Van Horn said.
Meanwhile, the cleanup of old sites from the last uranium boom, which supported the U.S. nuclear weapons program but has been blamed for high cancer rates in Navajo country, continues. Last month, federal regulators and Canadian firm Rio Algom Mining agreed to cleanup efforts at two uranium-contaminated sites on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in New Mexico and Arizona at a cost of $2.5 million (Land Letter, Sept. 16).
Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.
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