Friday, May 30, 2008

Navajo Nation Pushes for Uranium Cleanup

Navajo Nation Pushes for Uranium Cleanup

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Bryan Red House of Crownpoint, N.M., protests uranium mining near his community.

Bryan Red House of Crownpoint, N.M., protests uranium mining near his community as he sits outside the U.S. Federal Courthouse in downtown Denver, Monday, May 12, 2008.

Morning Edition, May 30, 2008 · Despite the lure of millions of dollars, the Navajo Nation has banned uranium mining on its reservation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. That decision is the result of an ongoing legacy of disease left by decades of mining in the past.

Chris Shuey, of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, N.M., studied the impact of uranium on the Navajo community and found they had lower cancer rates than the general population before mining. The rates are three- to five-times higher now.

"There were no standards, there were no safety precautions," Shuey said. "And the excuse was the federal government made the decision to get fissile material out of the ground for the nuclear weapons program to protect national security. … This was the mantra."

Thousands of uranium mines operated on Navajo land from the 1940s to the 1980s. All are now abandoned, many with radioactive mine waste, called "tailings," blowing in the wind. Some Navajo homes were even built using radioactive dirt. People still drink from unregulated, and possibly contaminated, water sources.

Tribal member Larry King was a child when the land was mined. He remembers playing around the mines and the streams coming from them.

"The water tasted good, so we drank water from there," King says. "And I used to herd sheep and play on the waste pile down there."

But the Navajo are not the only people affected by uranium contamination. Non-native miners and people who worked at or lived downwind from nuclear test sites in the West have suffered, too.

Scotty Begay, a former miner, says the rules in his mine were pretty lax.

"The yellowcake — which was enriched uranium — people were packing it at home," Begay says. "Doors that were supposed to be secured were left open. People were allowed to work around it with bare hands, not wearing the protective gear that they should have been wearing."

When the Dust Blows

Teddy Nez lives in Coyote Canyon, a remote part of New Mexico. His home is right next to Northeast Church Rock Mine, an abandoned uranium mine; a 40-foot-high pile of radioactive mine tailings sits just the length of a football field from his house. A wire fence and warning signs were put up this year, but the fence isn't doing much.

Last summer the Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation EPA said they were removing radiation around Nez's home. Bulldozers took away six inches of radioactive topsoil.

Nez says officials called it "time-critical removal," which he finds curious because the soil had been there since he returned from serving in Vietnam in 1971. Wind blows the contaminated soil into the air, and rain washes it under the fence back toward the house. Nez says the cleanup around his house was, at best, a Band-Aid.

"When the dust blows, the EPA people told me not to work outside too long," Nez says.

Nez and his neighbors might be wise to relocate, but there's little money to do that, and neighbor Larry King says they don't want to leave.

"Traditionally when a baby is born, when the umbilical cord dries up and falls off, it's buried in the sheep corral," King says. "So that's how we're tied to the land. To relocate … I don't think it's in anybody's vocabulary here at the moment."

Cleanup is a daunting task. For starters, no one even knows how many abandoned mines there are on the Navajo Nation reservation. Cleanup costs will be enormous, and no one has officially taken responsibility for the contamination. Even the bureaucracy is overwhelming: Five federal agencies alone are involved, along with tribal and state agencies.

Residents of the area around the Northeast Church Rock Mine are united, though. Earlier this year, they formed a community association. Members like King think this grassroots effort is their best chance to force a solution.

Many of the neighbors testified before Congress last fall. That testimony resulted in a draft action plan from the EPA, which identifies cleanup of the Northeast Church Rock Mine as one of the highest priorities.

Glow of Uranium Boom Attracts U.S. Miners

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Joe Lister
Ted Robbins/NPR

Joe Lister has managed the Mt. Taylor mine — pretty much alone — since it closed 17 years ago.

The gate leading into the Mt. Taylor mine in northern New Mexico.
Ted Robbins/NPR

The gate leading into the Mt. Taylor mine in northern New Mexico. It's the country's largest uranium mine.

More on U.S. Mines

All Things Considered, May 29, 2008 · Since the 1980s, the world has had huge stockpiles of uranium ore as a result of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race and little interest in new nuclear power plants.

But now, there's money to be made in mining uranium.

The price of uranium ore has shot up 10-fold in the past three years because demand has outstripped supply.

Countries like China and India have plans to open dozens of new nuclear power plants, which require enriched uranium for fuel. Major producers — like Australia, Canada, Russia and Namibia — are the major suppliers.

And now the U.S. uranium industry wants to get in on the boom.

Mining companies have staked tens of thousands of claims in five Western states. Those who are in charge of established mines, such as the Mt. Taylor mine in northern New Mexico — the country's largest — want to reopen them.

Since Mt. Taylor closed 17 years ago, Joe Lister has been managing it pretty much alone. He says he'd like to have his 450 colleagues back and working.

But startup costs — up to $150 million for the mine — are an inhibiting factor.

So are federal and state rules regulating the radioactive mineral. Regulations on mine safety, uranium waste and environmental impact are tough and numerous.

Plus, after decades of little activity, the glut of new applications has overwhelmed officials who regulate the industry. The situation is even worse because many of the officials who knew the regulations have retired, according to Patrick Donnelly, a mining analyst with Salman Partners in Toronto.

"And now you're seeing a new generation of scientists and bureaucrats, and ... dealing with these permits and licenses, and these people are inexperienced," Donnelly says. "They're going to be a lot more careful, a lot more rigorous in the permitting process. No one wants to make a mistake."

There are plenty of nuclear industry opponents watching.

But why aren't more mines open in the U.S.?

"When we say uranium, when we say nuclear, what are your first thoughts?" Mt. Taylor's Lister says. "What is the first thing you think of? Do you think atomic bomb? Do you think Three Mile Island? Most people do."

There have been no reported nuclear power plant incidents that threatened public safety since the accident at the nuclear power plant Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania 29 years ago.

There is an issue of what to do with spent fuel, but with petroleum prices soaring and carbon-emitting coal plants under scrutiny, Donnelly says more mines will open. The need for energy is just too big and there's too much money to be made supplying it.

"You will see a uranium mining renaissance in the U.S.," Donnelly says. "Are you going to see it this year? A little bit. Next year, a little bit more."

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