When a foreign company started exploratory drilling for the possible return of uranium mining near Church Rock, community members say they were not informed in advance.
“It was a complete shock,” Jonathan Perry, the director of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, said of the process that started this winter.
The eastern Navajo Nation communities have stood largely in opposition to future uranium mining for decades.
“The majority of Diné people have been personally impacted by (uranium),” Leona Morgan, an activist and member of Navajo Nation, said.
The Navajo Nation has a moratorium dating back nearly two decades that prohibits uranium extraction, but the Eastern Agency consists of what is known as checkerboard. That means federal and state lands are intermixed with Navajo, or Diné, lands and allotment lands.
Laramide Resources, a Canada-based company, plans on extracting uranium from an area within the checkerboard that is not tribal land.
The work would occur near the same location where, in 1979, a dam breach released 1,100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco, which the nearby Navajo communities relied upon for water.
Decades later, the spill, along with mine and mill sites in the area, remain unremediated. Earlier this year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a record of decision as well as a license amendment that will allow the United Nuclear Corp. – which owned the site where the spill occurred – to dispose of mine waste from the old uranium mine at the old mill site.
Morgan said there are concerns that this disposal method in an unlined pit could lead to a second spill happening, especially as climate change increases the risks of extreme weather events like monsoon floods.
The history of uranium contamination serves as a backdrop as Laramide seeks to begin extraction and the Nation feels as if it has been excluded from the process in part because of the checkerboard of land and mineral jurisdiction.
In response to questions from NM Political Report, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren highlighted the moratorium imposed by the Nation in 2005 on uranium mining and processing. Uranium mining on the Nation ended in 1986, though about a quarter of the recoverable uranium reserves in the country are located on Navajo Nation lands.
Nygren said the Navajo Nation is highly concerned about new and planned activities for mining, excavating and drilling to get uranium resources out of the ground and to process it from the raw state to a more refined stage.
“We’d like to avoid those activities from happening in our home area again until we get a significant handle on all of the contamination,” he said.
Nygren said there are 524 sites where the Nation is still trying to address past uranium contamination.
The sole remaining uranium mill in the United States is just north of Navajo Nation’s lands in Utah and neighbors a Ute Mountain Ute community.
The Navajo Nation is also fighting a proposal to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition, which includes the Navajo Nation, has called for President Joe Biden to use the Antiquities Act to establish a national monument that would block the proposed uranium mine near the Grand Canyon.
Laramide Resources acquired the Crownpoint/Church Rock Uranium Project from Hydro Resources Inc. in 2015. HRI was already seeking a license renewal from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That license renewal was granted to Laramide in February 2017.
This winter, Laramide engaged in a drilling operation to determine the feasibility moving forward.
In a March update, Laramide stated that the recent drilling confirmed that “historical drilling results are suitable for resource estimations and agreed with previous studies showing that there is low risk of resource depletion of chemical uranium compared to radiometric uranium in the Church Rock mineralization.”
The update further stated that the drilling will also provide “core for the test work necessary to obtain the New Mexico Aquifer Discharge Permit, the final material permit needed for the project.”
Laramide has not yet applied for the discharge permit.
According to information NMED provided NM Political Report, the agency will perform an administrative and technical review of the application upon receiving it and will determine if the information the company provides is sufficient.
“NMED will then assess the technical feasibility of the activities proposed by the applicant and determine if the applicant has provided enough information to determine if the activities proposed in the application will be protective of human health and the environment,” Matthew Maez, the agency spokesperson, told NM Political Report.
Once a draft permit has been developed, it will be sent out for the public to review. People will then be able to issue comments on the draft permit or request a hearing.
Maez said NMED will work with tribal governments during the permitting process.
Maez said that any mining company wanting to begin or resume uranium extraction on lands that are subject to the state’s regulations must receive the groundwater discharge permit and must provide financial assurances before commencing the operations.
“To the extent resources allow, NMED will assure compliance with permits and state rules to protect groundwater and surface water,” Maez said.
He said that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has jurisdiction over uranium milling sites.
Should an incident occur resulting in contamination of land, air or water, the people who will be impacted are the Diné residents of the Eastern Agency. And it’s not just one community.
The production would occur north of Church Rock in an area that is already highly contaminated from past uranium mining, including the worst uranium spill in the country’s history. The extracted ore would then be transported nearly 50 miles to an area south of Crownpoint where Laramide would process the ore. This would impact communities like Smith Lake, which is at the junction of New Mexico Highway 371 and Navajo Service Route 49.
“Regardless of the land status, it’s Navajo Indian Country,” Perry said.
The Eastern Agency is not the only ones concerned about this.
Nygren said Laramide hasn’t provided assurances it would work with the Navajo Nation, instead choosing to work more with the state and the federal regulatory agencies.
“[Laramide wasn’t] willing to come forward and work with us directly,” Nygren said. “To identify themselves and to state what activities they were going to undertake. Even though the land is not Navajo Nation land, it’s right up against our Navajo Nation lands.”
Nygren said Laramide is aware of the Nation’s concerns and the history of the contamination because the Navajo Nation worked to educate its predecessor, HRI, on those topics.
“The way [Laramide] has decided to approach this project from their interests alone, without recognizing the Navajo Nation’s stance and positions, it’s more concerning than reassuring,” Nygren said.
Laramide did not respond to email and phone requests for comment.
Nygren said the Nation’s primary concern is human health and safety.
“We have identified people that are living close to these abandoned uranium mine sites,” he said.
Those people, Nygren said, need to be the top concern and their homes need to be made safer.
“If they have any health conditions as a result of exposure in the past, they need to be provided with adequate health care,” he said.
In the late 2000s, researchers launched a birth cohort study focused on Navajo women. This study’s mission is to identify possible past uranium exposure that could create health issues for children. It has been going on for at least 12 years, Nygren said. “So public health and ongoing efforts to understand health impacts are one of the highest concerns,” he said.
But the Navajo Nation has other concerns as well, including the transportation of contaminants from abandoned uranium mines.
He said contaminants can reach the surface and get in soils at significant concentrations where they can register on detection devices. Much of the past mining was done underground and Nygren said that could put water resources at risk.
“Groundwater is always a very important resource,” Nygren said.
The lack of water access on the Navajo Nation received national attention during the COVID-19 pandemic and chapter houses, including the Church Rock Chapter House, set up hand washing stations outside their buildings to assist community members who didn’t necessarily have access to water.
There are also cultural concerns regarding uranium mining, including the impact on soil and plants.
Nygren highlighted the animals that rely on the landscape and rely on environments around abandoned uranium mines. He said this could have impacts on both wildlife and domesticated animals like horses, sheep and cattle. As they graze for food, they could consume plants that have taken in radioactive materials from water.
“Many of our people still have a subsistence way of life and will take one of their animals from their herds and eat them,” Nygren said. “So through these pathways, there are potential risks and concerns for our people.”
The plants that grow near uranium mines include some that historically have been used for prayers and ceremonies, he said.
“Often the prayers and ceremonies are addressing the mental stresses of living near abandoned uranium mine contamination in addition to any specific health conditions,” Nygren said. “Therefore it is critical that herbal medicines are also free from contaminants.”
Cleaning up contamination is not an easy process.
“It’s not like you can throw the dirt in a washer and it comes out clean,” Morgan said.
In January, Laramide contracted with Denver-based SLR International Corporation to conduct a preliminary economic assessment based in part on data gathered during this winter’s exploratory drilling.
When the company announced that contract, Laramide’s president and CEO Marc Henderson released a statement saying that the project “has the potential to become a meaningful contributor to future U.S. domestic security of supply.”
“This is an issue of increasing importance in U.S. energy policy considerations and one which appears to have bipartisan domestic support as witnessed by the recent passage of the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) in which nuclear power featured quite prominently,” Henderson said in the statement.
For the local community, mining could mean new jobs.
Not everyone opposes bringing uranium extraction back. Morgan said there are allottees who may support uranium extraction due to the limited economic opportunities in the region.
One of the reasons why discussions on the checkerboard can be so intense, Morgan said, is because the allottees own the “interest and say so” in the land that has been allotted to them. This is also present in debates over the future of oil and gas extraction to the northeast of the Crownpoint and Church Rock in the Chaco area.
Some of the allottees may turn toward extractive industries as a way to profit off their land.
“Some individuals think they can get rich overnight like the uranium boom in the 50s,” Morgan said.
But, she said, that boom did not create generational wealth.
Nygren said that any discussion of the economic benefits of uranium mining is premature considering the decadal problem of legacy pollution and unremediated sites.
“Our focus has been on addressing the past impacts of uranium mining from the 20th century. And that focus is on remediation, cleanup, and restoring health to our impacted people and to the communities that are impacted by these mine sites,” he said.
Nygren said the work to address uranium contamination goes back to when the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency was created in the late 1970s.
Despite decades of work, Nygren said “we still haven’t got a true or accurate estimation of what all these impacts have been.”
Those impacts include costs to clean up contaminated sites and to address the impacts of uranium mining on the health of people living on the Navajo Nation.
“So to take a look at potential economic benefits is still premature,” he said “Most of the discussion within the Navajo Nation government and coming to the position to place a moratorium on mining, new mining, and new processing has always been, ‘Let’s get a better handle on the past before we start looking at any kind of potential benefits for renewed uranium mining and processing.’”
Nygren said without any realistic cost estimates about the past impacts of uranium on Navajo Nation, there isn’t a framework to say what the potential economic benefits could be going forward.
“What if somebody says, ‘Well, you can make $5 billion over 20 years if you do get involved in new uranium mining.’ Would that cover the total cost of fixing what was contaminated in the past?” Nygren said. “Also would these potential economic benefits also adequately address the costs to assure a safer future?”
He said even if the price of uranium skyrocketed, he doesn’t think it would be compelling enough to allow future extraction “until we know that these past contaminated areas are adequately restored.”
Perry said that those who oppose the resumed uranium mining are fighting against a misconception amid the energy transition.
He said projects like Laramide’s are “fueled by the misconception that nuclear energy is green energy.”
But uranium mining and milling can have dire health impacts on the communities where those activities occur.
Morgan said activists continue to fight for an expansion of the RECA benefits to include uranium miners who were employed after 1977 and developed health conditions associated with exposure to radioactivity.
Perry said there are 86 unremediated uranium mines in the Eastern Agency region where Laramide hopes to resume mining operations.
“In reality, the communities continue to suffer because of that misconception,” Perry said.
The role that New Mexico, and Navajo Nation, plays in the energy transition and uranium mining is set against a backdrop of legacy contamination both from nuclear and fossil fuels.
“Because of our uranium, it doesn’t matter whether it’s nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, we will always be hurt by the nuclear industry,” Morgan said.
Both the tribe and the state are concerned that future extraction could continue the legacy of radioactive pollution.
“While nuclear energy produces low-carbon energy, Congress must develop long-term solutions for the disposal of nuclear waste that follow a consent-based model,” Maez said. “Further, until the United States and associated mining companies address the legacy issues that continue to impact New Mexicans and tribal members, the nuclear industry has virtually no social license to operate.”
In an email, Maddy Hayden, a spokesperson for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, highlighted that three of New Mexico’s 15 Superfund sites were created by uranium mining. Given that fact, she said the governor’s office is concerned about any proposed mining operations.
“Rural and tribal communities have in the past been taken advantage of by uranium mining companies, which resulted in little to no effort to protect the environment during and after operations,” she said. “That is not acceptable. It’s imperative that mining operations are not only held to a high regulatory standard, but also a high standard for cooperation with affected communities, including tribal nations.”
Hayden said uranium is needed for a variety of purposes beyond just weapons and energy. For example, she highlighted medical imaging. She said uranium is needed just like other metals such as lithium and copper are needed.
“But we shouldn’t be causing pollution while we mine them,” she said. “While nuclear energy has potential as a low-carbon energy solution, until Congress identifies a permanent disposal method for waste, it’s a non-starter as far as we’re concerned.”
NM Political Report is a nonprofit public news outlet providing in-depth and enterprise reporting on the people and politics across New Mexico.