Larry J. King is sick of uranium. After mining the metal in the ’70s and ’80s, he means that literally and figuratively. “We weren’t told about the hazards,” he says.
He started working in the mines before OSHA laws were routinely followed. “Thirty years later, I’ve got an unexplained respiratory problem,” he says, and other former employees have similar health issues.
King has seen the effects of uranium not just on his body but on his land. Hundreds of abandoned mines pit the landscape of the Navajo Nation. They are remnants of the Cold War’s hunt for ore. The sovereign nation outlawed uranium mining and processing in 2005 in response to high cancer rates. Yet King is one of many members of the tribe who are fighting plans to mine uranium from an aquifer.
Hydro Resources, Inc. requested a permit 23 years ago to dig into the West Water Canyon Aquifer, which sits directly underneath Church Rock, N.M. The company was granted the permit. The only reason it hasn’t started work is it doesn’t have the money, says Eric Jantz, staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
Hydro Resources CEO Alton Cherry did not return calls for comment.
Jantz is leading an effort to revoke the company’s permit. He represents more than 300 members of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, a group for which King is a board member. Hydro Resources wants to mine four sites in two towns: Church Rock and the neighboring burg of Crownpoint. The latter already taps the aquifer for much of its drinking water. Church Rock used to have wells in the aquifer, but they were closed a few years ago, Jantz says, because of contamination from past uranium mines. Although Church Rock doesn’t use the aquifer today, it does consider it a future water source. Mining it for uranium will pollute the water under the two towns and make it undrinkable.
Rich Abitz, a geochemist, explains the process: Uranium deposits occur naturally in aquifers throughout the Southwest. Left undisturbed, those deposits are basically harmless. But when mined, uranium and other heavy metals that attach to it are broken up and released into the aquifer. Even though the metals are extracted, the process “releases a number of contaminants that destroy the water quality,” Abitz says. Those include toxins such as arsenic and radium. “Once the mining commences, you would not want to drink that water.”
Usually, the Navajo Nation would have authority over a project that affects its water supply. But in this case, the 160-acre parcel Hydro Resources wants to bore into is private land, even though the region is home to a Navajo community and surrounding land is tribal.
Since the Navajo Nation doesn’t have jurisdiction over the land, the anti-uranium mining group and the law center have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to revisit Hydro Resources' permit. A month ago, the EPA agreed.
This battle has been waged for years, slowly winding its way through bureaucracy. It started in 1994, when concerned people formed Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining after finding out about the company's plans.
In order for Hydro Resources to mine, the company needed three things: a permit from the EPA, a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a state permit. By the time the group learned of the project, Hydro Resources had all three. The Environmental Law Center first approached the nuclear commission in 1995 and asked that the license be overturned. The case lasted until 2010, when that request was denied.
The EPA is revisiting its decision to grant Hydro Resources a permit, but there’s still no timeframe for a ruling. In the meantime, King has started a campaign on Change.org that asks people to sign a petition to prevent the mining. Up since the first week of April, it’s already accrued more than 10,300 signatures. The goal is 20,000.
“Being in the Southwest, and being where every drop of water is precious—and where water is sacred, too—we need to preserve the water not only for ourselves but for future generations,” says King. “Without water, there is nothing.”
Geochemist Abitz adds that pulling uranium from beneath American soil wouldn’t benefit the local economy and would only go to the free market. “It’s nonsense when people talk about, Let us help our domestic costs,” he says. Still, he adds that he’s not against the practice. “I believe you can go and do uranium mining, as long as you don’t do it in someone’s drinking water supply,” he says. “There are finite water resources out there, and the water is far more valuable than any uranium.”