Mounds of radioactive waste dot the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation in the US state of New Mexico. The earthen monoliths contain contaminated material from the more than 250 abandoned uranium mines that once provided the raw materials for the US nuclear complex.
As the Cold War ended, so did the demand for uranium. Yet growing international investment in nuclear energy has led to the prospect of renewed uranium mining in New Mexico, including the controversial new Roca Honda mine located on Mount Taylor, an area considered sacred by the Navajo and Pueblo peoples of the southwestern United States.
“If developed, Roca Honda will be a huge underground mine with tremendous impacts,” said environmental attorney Eric Jantz. “This mine could destroy people’s water, land, their places of worship – all for the purposes of funnelling profits to a Canadian company that is in turn selling it to Korea.”
The Roca Honda project, operated by Energy Fuels , is one of four proposed New Mexico uranium mines in the permitting stage, said Jon J Indall , an attorney representing the four mining companies ready to begin operations in the coming years. “The market is a bit sluggish now, but these operations are poised to catch the next upswing.”
The prospect of renewed uranium development has triggered a contentious debate in New Mexico, a state still reeling from the radioactive contamination caused by uranium mining and the economic decline that followed the exit of the industry from the country’s third-poorest state.
“These four projects have the potential to provide 1,000 jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue,” Indall told Al Jazeera. “This, all for a state whose economy is not exactly booming.”
But many from the Navajo Nation vehemently oppose the return of an industry that left hundreds of abandoned and un-reclaimed mines, mill sites and waste piles on indigenous lands. These continue to contaminate water, soil, livestock and housing, causing heath problems for an impoverished and historically marginalised native community.
Larry King, a former miner and member of the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining ( ENDAUM ), said: “People still talk about Three Mile Island and Chernobyl . Church Rock, where I am from, had the largest radioactive accident in US history, and 19 abandoned mines that remain today, [are] poisoning our community. But no one talks about this, they talk about new mining instead.”
Beginning in the 1950s, thousands of Native Americans like King found work in New Mexico’s uranium mines. They were often poorly paid, unprotected and uninformed about the dangers of uranium dust inhalation and chronic radiation exposure.
Nadine Padilla, the director of the MASE coalition , an organisation formed in 2008 by communities affected by mining, spoke to Al Jazeera about what she said were the health effects caused by the mining. “Every day I see people with kidney disease, respiratory problems, and many women fighting various forms of cancer. People still live in houses made with radioactive material from the mills… Baca, where my family is from, has one of the most polluted groundwater systems in the state.”
But others from the region welcome the return of the industry. When asked about his thoughts on new uranium mining projects, Jack Farley, who has worked as a miner for 28 years, exclaimed, “Oh God yes, this economy needs it bad! Things have changed. When I worked there were no laws. I worked 500-1,000 working levels of radiation – that’s 999 times what is allowed now. But I think a lack of education has people still thinking uranium mining is dangerous.”
Health and controversy
The harmful effects of exposure to radon , a radioactive gas often found in uranium mines, are well-known. Yet an absence of health studies or environmental monitoring have led to a poor understanding of the effects of the uranium legacy on the Navajo Nation.
“Part of the reason is that these are marginalised communities, low income, communities of colour, indigenous communities,” said Jantz. “They don’t have the political power or the resources it takes to get the federal government or state government to do the basic science behind the health costs of uranium mining.”
The Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project ( CRUMP ) began in 2003 to assess the effects of the 1979 tailings dam failure , which released 1,100 tons of radioactive waste into the Puerco River, and other abandoned mines. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, at the infamous Church Rock mine, “residents graze sheep, cattle and horses, and collect herbs around the area. Due to the proximity of the residents to the mine site, this mine was identified as the highest priority for cleanup by US EPA and Navajo Nation EPA of over 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.”
King said, “Even before the ’79 spill, contamination from untreated mine watering would flow through our community. After the dam break, it only continued. Kids used to play in the wash, in the mine waste – there were no fences, no signs. I used to graze our sheep where the mines were.”
The CRUMP finding showed contamination of numerous wells and springs in the communities in and around Church Rock, as well as dangerous radon levels in homes made with contaminated materials – equivalent to a lifetime cancer risk of smoking one to two packs of cigarettes a day.
A more comprehensive health study , still under way, found that of the 1,300 people surveyed, “those people living closer to waste site were more likely to have hypertension, auto-immune disease, while people who had history of exposure during active mining had an additional likelihood of kidney disease”, as principal investigator Johnnye Lewis told Al Jazeera.
In response to the contamination, the Navajo Nation enacted a moratorium on uranium mining in 2005, as well as a ban on transporting uranium across reservation land.
Now, the prospect of new mining projects has created a rift within the country’s largest Native American reservation, as certain chapters and officials have come out in support of new uranium projects.
A new bill sponsored by Navajo Council Delegate Leonard Tsotsi has allowed Uranium Resources, Inc to construct a “demonstration project” that would extract uranium ore in the Church Rock chapter. The legislation, seemingly at odds with the uranium ban, has been endorsed by chapter president Johnny Henrie as well as a number of other prominent Navajo officials. Henrie was unavailable for comment for this article.
Some, including Navajo activist Leona Morgan, assume foul play. “These are old tactics from the past, divide-and-conquer. Today, companies target families who have rights to lease their land, they target politicians and offer them something. Right now, everyone is wondering what Leonard Tsotsi and these pro-uranium families are getting.”
King, who lives just across the road from the proposed mine, agreed with Morgan’s assessment. “These men are supposed to protect the community. But you show them a little green, and that changes.”
In the end, the prospect of new uranium mining will likely have less to do with the internal controversy than with global economic factors related to the growth of the nuclear energy industry.
According to a January 3 report by the World Nuclear Association , there are 435 operable reactors in the world right now, 71 reactors under construction, 172 planned, and another 312 have been proposed.
As Curtis Moore, the director of investor and public relations at Energy Fuels, told Al Jazeera, “There is clearly significant growth in the industry. We’re going to have to get the uranium from somewhere. There is certainly a probability some will come from New Mexico.”
The controversy over renewed mining is far from over, but Curtis believes it comes down to economy. “Uranium mining has gotten a bad rap in the past. But the bottom line is that these projects create jobs, they create tax revenues, they provide clean nuclear energy for the world.”
But King remains sceptical. “Clean has not been my experience.”