In a last attempt to deep-six a controversial project to mine uranium near two Navajo communities in northwestern New Mexico, a Navajo environmental group is taking its fight to the global stage.
Tomorrow, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, with the help of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, will submit a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights arguing that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision to grant Hydro Resources Inc., a license to mine uranium ore near Churchrock and Crown Point, N.M., is a violation of international laws.
The groups contend the mines, first permitted by NRC in 1999, could contaminate drinking water for 15,000 Navajo residents in and around the two communities, which lie just outside the Navajo Nation. In 2005, the Navajo's tribal government passed a law prohibiting uranium mining within its borders.
"By its acts and omissions that have contaminated and will continue to contaminate natural resources in the Dine communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock, the State has violated Petitioners' human rights and breached its obligations under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man," the petition reads.
"We're very hopeful," said Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center who is filing the petition on behalf of ENDAUM. "I think we have very solid claims. It's always been our client's position that clean water is a human right."
The United Nations also recognizes clean water as a human right, he added.
The groups cannot take their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is separate from the commission, because the United States does not recognize the international court's jurisdiction, Jantz said.
ENDAUM and the law center are hoping the commission will put pressure on the NRC and State Department to reverse the licensing decision.
The Navajo Nation is still suffering the aftermath of previous uranium mining, which left hundreds of abandoned mines and myriad health problems for Navajo people, including high rates of cancer, heart disease and birth defects.
Former Navajo mine workers who removed uranium ore during the 1950s and '60s to feed the buildup of the nation's Cold War nuclear arsenal continue to seek workers' compensation and health care assistance. Just last month, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) reintroduced the "Radiation Exposure Compensation Act," which would allow more of those former workers to receive restitution.
"Residents already have to live with radiation and heavy metals," Jantz said. The cleanup of abandoned mines from the last uranium boom is still in progress. Most recently, Canadian firm Rio Algom Mining agreed to a $2.5 million cleanup of two uranium-contaminated sites on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in New Mexico and Arizona.
Raising case's profile
In addition to compelling NRC to reconsider the license for the new mines, the groups hope to raise the profile of their case internationally and drive home the point that uranium mining is a human rights issue as well as an environmental one, Jantz added.
Officials with NRC declined to comment on the petition, saying they had not seen the document. They also refused to comment on the groups' decision to challenge the license in an international forum.
Mat Lueras, vice president of corporate development for Uranium Resources Inc., Hydro Resources' parent firm, said the company had not heard about the petition and also declined comment. URI hopes to open the first New Mexico mine in 2013, according to company officials.
Last March, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that NRC had adequately considered the potential effects of the project in its analysis and included adequate environmental safeguards (Land Letter, Sept. 23, 2010).
But critics of NRC's licensing of Hydro Resources' New Mexico mines argued 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 sufficient protections for groundwater from the new mines.
The groups appealed the case to the Supreme Court, but in November the justices decided not to review the lower court's decision. Hydro Resources announced a few days later that it would move forward with the project. On its web site, URI refers to its uranium holdings in New Mexico as its largest asset.
The company plans to use an in-situ type of uranium extraction it says has several advantages over traditional mining. For example, in-situ recovery leaves uranium ore in the ground and extracts minerals by dissolving the ore and pumping the solution to the surface.
The process, now widely used by uranium mining firms, generates no tailings, but operations should 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).
An environmental impact statement for the project acknowledged that no similar operation has fully restored groundwater quality to pre-mining conditions. But URI has received a 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 to meet health and safety standards for livestock or irrigation use, but not for human consumption.
Furthermore, radiation levels in the air will not be affected because the company will use "down flow columns" to send radiation back underground, according to company officials.
The company still must renew its outdated underground injection control permit, which will be handled by the New Mexico Environment Department.
Jantz said that if the company cannot restore groundwater to drinking water standards, the project should not be allowed to proceed. "When the company says they'll restore groundwater, what that means is they'll make a run at restoring it, but they can't fully restore it, so they get a variance from the regulatory agencies," he said. "It's just on paper -- it's a legal fiction."
Uranium prices, which plunged briefly after the Japan nuclear crisis but have rebounded to around $68 for long-term contracts and about $56 on the spot market, have risen in recent years as interest in nuclear power development has grown as an alternative to greenhouse gas-emitting energy sources like coal.
While the failures at Japan's Fukushima plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have focused international attention on the potential perils of nuclear energy, Jantz said the petition was in the works even before the disaster in Japan.
"We actually decided to this long before Fukushima," Jantz said. "Our clients have always been cognizant of the fact there are communities all around the world that have suffered at the hands of the nuclear industry."
Most of the uranium mining projects in New Mexico are being financed by Japanese and other Asian investors, as well as some in Russia, he said.
Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.