Navajo group bringing attention to uranium mining

Monday, May 16, 2011 3:49 PM
This photo from 1975 shows signs along the Rio Puerco warning residents in three languages to avoid the water in Church Rock, N.M., after a uranium tailings spill by the United Nuclear Corp.

ALBUQUERQUE – Members of a Navajo group opposed to uranium mining on New Mexico land surrounded by the sprawling Navajo reservation traveled to Washington on Monday to bring attention to their fight.

Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Friday. The petition alleges human-rights violations and seeks to overturn the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to grant a mining license to Hydro Resources Inc.

The company has plans to develop claims near the Navajo communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint.

The group’s effort is fueled by a sense of urgency as interest in mining the ore has picked up in New Mexico and energy officials in Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration have talked about creating a stable regulatory environment for uranium and other industries to encourage economic development.

“We know the current governor isn’t particularly interested in listening to native communities or protecting natural resources. We don’t see ourselves as having any recourse with the state,” said Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which filed the petition on behalf of the group.

Members of the group held a news conference on the petition Monday morning in Washington.

Cold War-era uranium mining has left a legacy of contamination and health problems across the reservation and western New Mexico. Critics are concerned that Hydro Resources’ operations will add to the past contamination and compromise an aquifer that serves thousands of Navajos.

Officials with Hydro Resources have maintained that they are committed to the safety of their employees and protection of the environment.

Aside from the license granted to the Texas-based company by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the state Mining and Minerals Division has before it five pending uranium-exploration permits and two pending mining permits in Cibola and McKinley counties. Another three exploration permits have been approved in recent years.

John Bemis, secretary of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, described interest in New Mexico’s uranium as “huge.” The deposit is the largest in the United States.

Tapping into the deposit could yield more than $1 billion in investments from mining companies over the next few years. Bemis told The Associated Press in a recent interview that although the governor recognizes uranium as a valuable fuel, the administration is not interested in rubber stamping projects.

“The governor recognizes that this is an important piece of the pie, and it has to be done right, obviously. But it can be done right,” he said.