Uranium's resurgence sparks debate
By Gail Binkly
Gilbert Badoni grew up around uranium mining.
“My dad first got a job in the early ’50s around the Cove [Ariz.] area,” he told an audience at the Indigenous World Uranium Summit Nov. 30 - Dec. 2 in Window Rock, Ariz., capital of the Navajo Nation.
“Work was scare. The only employment they could obtain was in the railroads back East or on the West Coast. They wanted to be close to their families.
“Lo and behold, here came the uranium companies wanting to open up mines in the Four Corners area. That attracted our fathers and grandfathers. They got jobs without no training, without any warning that one day they would die from cancer.”
Badoni’s father worked in Cove several years. Then the family moved to Colorado’s Western Slope, to Grand Junction, Uravan, and Slickrock.
“My dad worked in those mines,” Badoni said. “Many Navajos did. People lived in mining camps, in trailers, tents. I can still hear the generators that provided power to the mine. In the wee hours of the night you could still hear it, no matter that you’re four or five miles from the mine.
“Our fathers and grandfathers worked at these mines with their bare hands. Our families were brought up at these camps. Our mothers would have those baby formulas, those powders, and the only good drinking water they could find was from the mines. Fathers were bringing back these jugs of water for cooking.”
His father came home at night covered in yellow uranium ore. “He would look like gold,” Badoni recounted. “There was all types of dust on him. He would shake it off inside the house.”
Carl Holiday, who spoke during a tour at the summit, told a similar tale of workers with no protective gear, no warning of how radiation might damage them.
“The workers worked in the mines from sunup to dark,” Holiday said. “They drank water coming from the cracks in the walls. They ate their lunch down there. They took the contamination home to their families.”
Vanessa Brown was born in Tuba City, Ariz., on the reservation. She remembers watching the men, including her father, working in the big pit east of Tuba City.
Years later, when the mill there was closed, she would go with friends into the pit to play a drum. “We thought it was so cool to see the earth around us,” she said. “Never knowing what it was. “I did notice, I had two trees in my front yard. Trees are scare in Tuba City. But they were always sick. Now and then I would find little dead birds underneath those.”
Later on, signs began appearing along the mining property warning of radiation danger in the very areas where Brown’s family had worked and played.
Brown’s mother died of cancer. Today, Brown works with victims of sickness in the Tuba City area. “It’s like Pandora’s box was opened,” she said of the uranium mining. “The damage is done.”
Phil Harrison, an advocate for Diné uranium workers, agrees. The son of a uranium worker, he grew up in mining camps and did some mining himself while in high school in Gateway, Colo. His father died of lung cancer in 1971; seven of his uncles died of lung disease; and his grandfather and grandmother both died of cancer, he said.
”We were used as guinea pigs because the Navajo people didn’t read or write English. We were used without our consent,” Harrison said. “We were used as cheap labor to mine uranium.”
Stories such as these – hundreds of them – are the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo reservation. It’s a legacy so horrific that it prompted the tribal council in 2005 to adopt a resolution called the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act ( Diné is the Navajos’ preferred term for themselves), which states that “it is the duty and responsibility of the Diné to protect and preserve the natural world for future generations” and that, because of the problems caused by uranium mining in the past, “No person shall engage in uranium mining and uranium processing on any sites within Navajo Indian Country.”
That sets up a legal showdown with different uranium companies that are now eagerly seeking to resume mining at sites across the West, many of which lie within or adjacent to the 26,000- square-mile reservation.
The price of uranium has soared from about $10 a pound to $60 as worldwide supplies have fallen. Most of the material would go to fuel nuclear power plants.
“The uranium industry is pounding on the state’s doors, you should know that,” Darrith Watchman-Moore, deputy secretary with the New Mexico Environment Department, told an audience at the uranium summit.
Some 4 million tons of uranium ore were taken from the reservation from 1944 to 1986, according to the Los Angeles Times, which recently published a four-part series on uranium mining and the Diné. The U.S. government was the only customer. The radioactive material was used to make the atomic bomb and later to create more nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
In the 1960s, the boom declined, and in 1970 the U.S. ended its procurement program.
But about one-quarter of all the recoverable uranium remaining in the country is on the Navajo reservation, which sprawls across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. And mining companies would like to get at it.
Radioactive dam break
Many mining proposals involve land that is technically not on the reservation.
One proposal, for instance, is for mining at Church Rock, northeast of Gallup, N.M., on a parcel of land where the mineral rights are owned by Uranium Resources Inc. It is one of many places within the reservation, particularly around its southeastern edge, that are “checkerboarded” with parcels of private, federal and state land.
United Nuclear Corp. operated a mine and mill at Church Rock from 1968 to 1982.
In conventional uranium mining, ore is extracted and taken to a mill. There it is crushed and mixed with sulfuric and nitric acids and other compounds to remove the uranium.
The uranium mill produces uranium oxide, a metallic powder, which is taken to a conversion facility to be gasified into uranium hexachloride. Then it is taken to an enrichment facility to be turned into a form that can be used for nuclear fuel or weapons. Left behind when the ore is processed are fine-grained, sandy tailings that are radioactive. At Church Rock, the tailings were mixed into a liquid slurry which was piped to a depression behind an earthen dam.
On July 16, 1979, the dam broke, reportedly because of “differential foundation settlement,” and 94 million gallons of highly acidic wastewater and radioactive wastes spilled through, the largest accidental release of radioactive material in U.S. history. It washed down Rio Puerco almost as far as the Grand Canyon.
Radioactivity was detected in Gallup a few hours later. The Rio Puerco contained 7,000 times the acceptable standard of radioactivity for drinking water after the spill occurred.
Officials, however, said the area was so sparsely populated, there was little to worry about. They did advise people not to drink the water until the problem was cleaned up.
Today the site is covered with dirt and clay, a cap that is supposed to last at least 200 years, although the half-life of the radioactive elements is 1,600 years, said Chris Shuey, director of the Uranium Impact Assessment Program for the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque. United Nuclear also left an enormous pile of radioactive mine waste at the Church Rock site, where livestock grazed, children played, and people combed the property for sacred herbs.
Studies done by a community group with the help of the U.S. EPA in 2003 found gamma radiation levels nine to 12 times greater than normal background levels in sands in the minewaste area.
Larry King, who lives near the old mine at Church Rock, said the government’s and mining company’s lack of concern for the Diné was demonstrated by the fact that the state paid to pave the road and install electricity through to the UNC mine, but bypassed the people living nearby.
“Their security lights were like our security lights. They lit the whole area, but we still didn’t have power in our homes,” he said.
“So with this new mining company coming in and promising all kinds of revenues and jobs that would benefit the community, to me it’s all a lie,” King said.
Preserving a way of life
Hydro Resources Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of URI, hopes to resume mining at the site. HRI, according to a company web site, “has invested over $25 million in New Mexico since 1986 because the San Juan Basin is the most prolific uranium province in the United States.” The company proposes using a new method known as in situ mining. Hundreds of holes are drilled, and water and oxygen are injected into the ground. Uranium leaches into the water, which is then pumped out. When the uranium is removed the water is returned.
Eight hundred fifty people live within a 3-mile radius of the proposed Church Rock mine site, King said. “HRI says this is a vast desert, but this is home to us.”
Navajos hold valid grazing permits at the site, according to Chris Shuey, but the company is asserting a higher legal authority to mine.
The land is tribal trust land that was leased under a 1958 surface-use agreement between the tribe and a private mining company. HRI now holds that agreement.
But the tribe intends to stand firmly by its position of no uranium mining “within Navajo Indian country,” which they consider to be within the nation’s boundaries or even near them. They point out that two mining complexes located on Haystack Butte in New Mexico just outside the reservation produced high levels of radiation that affected Navajos living nearby. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. signed the 2005 DNRPA resolution and supports the ban on mining.
Shirley gave the welcoming address at the summit and called for people from around the world to work together to protect land, water and people from the harmful effects of uranium mining.
“We want our way of life preserved, and if we continue to allow uranium mining, we stand to lose it all,” said Lynnea Smith, an activist with Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining.
Not a priority
During the uranium boom of the 1940s and ’50s, mining occurred at a frenetic pace. Miners worked without protective gear, exposing them to particulates and radon gas released by the uranium. Many later developed silicosis, lung cancer or other diseases. Miners of all races were affected, of course, but the Navajo people were particularly hard-hit. When the uranium boom ended, they were left with 1,000 abandoned mines and four mill sites on their lands.
Most were not cleaned up, barricaded or even fenced off for years, if ever. As time went on, the Diné built homes using radioactive tailings. They and their livestock drank from old mine pits that had filled with water. Dust blew from tailings piles and was carried for miles.
The rate of cancer deaths on the reservation doubled from the start of the 1970s to the end of the 1990s, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The Times also reported that in 1986, testing of 48 water sources around Cameron, Ariz., found that uranium levels in the water were as high as 139 picocuries per liter in wells and up to 4,024 in abandoned pits. EPA rules permit no more than 20 picocuries per liter in drinking water.
“Some open pits had standing water that was used for swimming and by livestock,” said Madeline Roanhorse, executive director of the Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands program. “Some old mines were used as corrals.”
The AML program has closed mine entrances with concrete blocks, rocks and gates, she said. However, the program does not deal with environmental concerns such as groundwater contamination and residual radiation.
Cleanup efforts have been spotty and plagued by problems. Beginning in 1984, the Department of Energy covered tailings piles at the mill sites. But the Navajos worry that wind and erosion will expose the materials again. And groundwater contamination is known or suspected at many sites dotting the reservation.
Diane Malone, program manager for the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Program, said the tribe has approached the U.S. EPA about conducting studies to ascertain the extent of groundwater contamination, “but they say, ‘We don’t have the money’. It’s not a priority of this administration.”
Cleanup in Durango
Closer to home, Durango, Colo., has its own old milling site.
“A lot of people in Durango are not even aware that right across the river from the train station there used to be a uranium milling complex,” said David Miller of S.M. Stoller at a presentation in November at Fort Lewis College. The Vanadium Corp. processed uranium there for two decades, until 1963, he said. S.M. Stoller is a subcontractor that works with the Department of Energy to clean up “legacy sites” left by uranium mining and milling.
Like the Navajos, citizens in Durango often used the sandy tailings for construction or landscaping. “People would come load up their pickup with mill tailings, take it and put it in their flowerbeds,” Miller said.
Raffinate – an acidic, liquid waste with high concentrations of uranium and other materials — was dumped into the Animas River originally, Miller said. Later the company began dumping it on the ground to evaporate.
The operation shut down when the boom ended. The cleanup of the mill site began in 1986, Miller said. Two and a half million cubic yards of material were removed and entombed in a disposal cell in Bodo Canyon, where it is expected to remain for the next 1,000 yards.
Bats use mines
One of the unexpected beneficiaries of the uranium-mining boom of the 1940s and ’50s has been the bat. Bats now inhabit many abandoned uranium mines on the western portion of San Juan Public Lands.
“We have one of the largest bat rookeries in the United States,” said Jamie Sellar-Baker, associate district manager with the Dolores District of the San Juan Public Lands Center.
After mining companies cease activity at a site, the SJPLC and Colorado Division of Wildlife often work to install bat gates, she said. They bar the entrance for humans, livestock and larger wildlife, but the bats can continue to use the mines.
Among the species here is the Townsend’s big-eared bat, considered a sensitive species on local public lands, said Kathy Nickell, wildlife biologist with the SJPLC.
Nickell said it’s not known how, or whether, bats are affected by residual radiation in the mines.
“We’ve wondered if we really had that many Townsend’s bats here before the mining,” Nickell said. “We may have created a habitat for them, and that would be an unusual and pleasant benefit to having done all that mining in the past.”
About 300 other sites in the Durango area had to be cleaned up as well where residents had used the tailings around their homes, Miller said. An even more massive cleanup took place in the Grand Junction area – where close to 8,000 similar sites were remediated, Miller said, and around the country, “wherever there was milling or uranium that the [Department of Energy] was involved with,” he said. Most sites, however, were centered in the Four Corners.
Expendable human beings
Norman Brown, an activist for the Diné, finds the careful cleanup of the Durango area somewhat ironic.
“They didn’t do that to our lands,” he said. “We’ve got four big tailings sites that they just covered up. They didn’t remove them.
“We were an expendable commodity, expendable human beings,” Brown said. “We were lied to, we were played with, all in the name of national security. “It was because of the Navajo people that America became the sole nuclear power in the world, and we have paid for that.”
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, passed in 1990 and amended several times since, provides compensation for former uranium mine or mill workers and their families. Yet only about 10 percent of Diné uranium workers have been compensated through RECA, Harrison said, vs. about 90 percent of white workers. Part of the problem is that the government wants documentation such as original birth certificates, original marriage licenses, land titles, check stubs to verify work history, and chest X-rays – items many old workers simply don’t possess.
“People say, ‘Who was there when I was born in a hogan?’” he asked. “Who was documenting this?
“But the services have been rendered, the war was won, our code talkers were there on the front. They need to stop waiting and pay these workers.”
Activists’ efforts have focused on four areas: obtaining compensation for all workers, reclaiming former mine and mill sites, conducting health studies on the effects of land and water contamination, and banning uranium mining or milling on Dinetah.
Advocates are now seeking to have RECA expanded to allow the use of affidavits to prove certain things that can’t be documented otherwise; and to expand the counties considered to be “downwind.”
Downwinders are people who were exposed to radioactive fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada in the 1950s. The boundaries for downwinders stop at the Arizona state line and don’t go into New Mexico, Harrison said. He wants the downwind counties to include McKinley and San Juan counties in New Mexico, and Montezuma County in Colorado.
Work is proceeding slowly on reclamation and health studies. Shuey said the tribe is trying to initiate studies to look at possible environmental factors (such as uranium exposure) in kidney disease, which is three to five times the national average on the reservation.
But when it comes to enforcing the uranium-mining ban, the future is uncertain. Some 10 different companies are seeking to mine within or near the reservation boundaries, Shuey said. One proposal is for uranium mining on Mt. Taylor in New Mexico, one of the Navajos’ four sacred mountains.
“If someone proposed drilling a mine in the middle of a 400-year-old Catholic Church there would be outrage,” Shuey said.
Uranium-company executives insist that new technology and greater protection for workers can make uranium mining a safe and profitable venture for all concerned, providing well-paying jobs on the poverty-plagued reservation. And some environmentalists argue that nuclear energy is a clean alternative to coal-fired power plants, which produce greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming.
But many remain skeptical.
“We do have Navajos who are pro mining, pro milling, but the majority are against it because of what happened,” said Perry Charley of Diné College in Shiprock, N.M.
“These uranium guys want everyone to believe them, and yet we have this 50-year record of their malfeasance against the people,” Shuey said. “The only entity that believes these guys is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
Travis Stills, an attorney with the nonprofit Energy Minerals Law Center in Durango, said at the presentation at Fort Lewis that new uranium-mining proposals are popping up across the Four Corners as well as in Wyoming. Companies are talking about putting 38 mines into production again in the Uravan area, Stills said. Uravan, on Highway 141 in Montrose County, Colo., is a former uranium and vanadium (hence its name) mining town that was completely dismantled as part of an EPA cleanup.
There is a proposal for a new mill near Paradox, Colo., as well as for one north of the Grand Canyon and at Mt. Taylor. “Mines need mills and vice versa,” Stills said.
Currently the International Uranium Corp.’s uranium/vanadium mill at White Mesa, Utah, near Blanding is the only operating mill in the area.
“We are all downwinders in some respects,” Stills said. “This is an issue for the region.”
The Indigenous World Uranium Summit brought together some 350 people from a dozen countries where uranium mining is a concern, including Australia, Brazil and India, where miners work for $1 a day.
The delegates issued a declaration, dated Dec. 2, that states in part: “The nuclear fuel chain poisons our people, land, air and waters and threatens our very existence and our future generations. Nuclear power is not a solution to global warming. . . . “We reaffirm the Declaration of the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg, Austria, in 1992, that ‘uranium and other radioactive minerals must remain in their natural location.’”