Opponents of a new uranium mine recently approved on the border of the Navajo Reservation near Church Rock, N.M., failed to win a review of the mine’s license by the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 15.
According to Uranium Resources Inc., the refusal of the Supreme Court to hear the case means legal challenges have been exhausted and the way is clear for the company to move forward with plans to extract 13.7 million pounds of mineralized uranium northeast of Gallup.
“It clears the last remaining legal challenge to our Nuclear Regulatory license and we will move forward towards the final development of the Churchrock/Crownpoint project,” stated Don Ewigleben, CEO of URI, in a press release. “We will continue to educate the community on the project, our focus on safety and the environment as well as the economic opportunity it creates for the area.”
Hydro Resources Inc, a subsidiary of URI, will construct and operate the mine.
The Navajo Nation vigorously fought the project, claiming the mine’s in-situ extraction technique would threaten to pollute an aquifer used by 15,000 Navajos, but the nation’s high court let stand a federal appealscourt decision upholding the mine’s license to conduct in-situ recovery of uranium ore. (Free Press, July 2010)
The mine is located on private land on the border of the Navajo Nation, which banned uranium-mining in 2005 because of its legacy of illness and environmental destruction across Dinetah, the Navajos’ homeland.
The question decided by the court in HRI vs. EPA is whether the private land in the “checkerboard area” of the Navajo Nation constitutes federally protected “Indian Country” as legally defined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Feasibility studies will continue on the site until the end of 2011, according to URI, and assuming there is appropriate financing and a recovery in the price of uranium, construction is expected to begin in 2012 with an expected mining rate of 1 million pounds per year.
Despite URI’s assertion that the mine has cleared all hurdles, plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Jantz, of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, says more permits and environmental reviews are required.
“They do not have the state permit they need to go forward – they need to renew their discharge permit and they need to get a temporary aquifer designation from the state,” he said. “The idea that the mine can go forward at any time is not right.”
In-situ leach mining is a controversial new method involving injecting chemicals into the uranium ore to release it and then pumping the solution to the surface, rather than digging up the ore.
Opponents of the mine argue that insitu leaching permanently contaminates groundwater with injected chemicals and radioactivity from disturbed uranium ore. Industry experts argue they have proven they can return the water to safe levels following extraction, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agrees.
But opponents to the mine, Eastern Diné (Navajo) Against Uranium Mining and the Southwest Research Information Center, say there are too many unknowns, and the risk to a critical water source is too great to allow the mine.
“In-situ cannot be done safely,” Jantz said. “Data shows that once the groundwater is contaminated, it can’t be cleaned up because the radionuclides change the geochemical nature of the aquifer and it is never the same.”
He criticized the NRC for approving another uranium mine in the Church Rock area where a previous uranium mine’s tailing ponds breached in 1979, contaminating local rivers and soil to this day. The area is now a Superfund site.
“NRC’s position seems to be that this is like a Brownfield area since it is already contaminated,” Jantz said. “So essentially what they are saying is that it is a sacrifice zone.”