Navajos push human rights claims in uranium fight

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) May 2011

A Native American group appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for help in stopping a planned uranium leach mining operation on lands bordered by the sprawling Navajo reservation.

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed a petition with the commission on behalf of the group Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining and six individuals.

The petition alleged human rights violations were committed when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Hydro Resources Inc. a license to mine near the Navajo communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint in western New Mexico.

The group fears the leaching operation would compromise an aquifer that supplies drinking water to thousands of Navajos.

“Wells are feeding the water system in those areas, and the contamination will eventually reach those wells,” said Larry J. King, a former mine worker who has opposed uranium mining in the area for more than a decade. “It may not be within the next 5 or 10 years, but what are we going to do? We’re going to leave nothing for our future generations.”

King and Eric Jantz, an attorney with the Santa Fe-based law center, said the petition is one of the group’s last hopes for getting the regulatory agency to reconsider Hydro Resources’ license since they have no other court options.

A spokesman for Hydro Resource’s parent firm, Uranium Resources Inc. of Lewisville, Texas, said the company stands behind its state and federal permits and plans to move forward with construction next year. Production is expected to start in 2013.

The company is “confident in our technology and people. We are dedicated to the welfare of the communities we operate in,” Mat Lueras, vice president of corporate development, said in an email.

Hydro Resources cleared its last legal hurdle in November when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Opponents had turned to the nation’s highest court last fall after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request for a rehearing on the license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Denver court had concluded the NRC took the “hard look’’ at the project required by the National Environmental Policy Act and adequately considered cumulative impacts in granting the license to Hydro Resources.

The case was the first-ever challenge to NRC approval of licenses for in-situ uranium leach mining, a process that injects chemicals into the ground to release uranium, then pumps the solution to the surface.

Jantz said last week's filing also marks the first international human rights complaint against an action by the NRC.

“It is an environmental justice question,” he said. “There are plenty of exploitable uranium resources in Santa Fe County, but it will never happen because it’s a lot easier to convince regulators that this is a good idea in places where the median home price is $15,000, as opposed to some place where it’s half a million dollars.”

Cold War-era mining of uranium on the Navajo Nation left a legacy of disease and death, and cleaning up the mess has been a daunting task. Most of the physical hazards, including open mine shafts, have been fixed at more than 500 sites but radiation hazards remain a concern.

The Navajo Nation banned uranium mining on lands under its jurisdiction in 2005, but the courts have determined that the land staked by Hydro Resources is not Indian land and therefore not subject to the ban.

King’s home and his grazing land near Church Rock back up to one of the parcels purchased by Hydro Resources.

“There are some people who still think that uranium is a natural resource that can provide economic development,” he said. “When I hear a person say that, it just really irritates and upsets me. It’s not in their backyard.”

The petition requested, among other things, that the commission make a recommendation to the federal government that NRC suspend Hydro Resources’ license until the company has remediated existing contamination near Church Rock and that the government take meaningful steps to remediate abandoned uranium mines in the area.