7/16/2011 Gallup Independent: Group says NM bent rules for HRI: Activists file complaint, HRI claims no favoritism By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau: WINDOW ROCK – Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining filed a complaint Friday in district court in Santa Fe alleging that New Mexico Environment Department bent the rules to benefit Hydro Resources Inc. by allowing the company to conduct mining activities before it made a decision on HRI’s discharge permit application. The complaint was filed on the eve of the 32nd anniversary of the 1979 Churchrock uranium tailings spill, the largest release of radioactive waste, by volume, in U.S. history. “This violation of the regulatory process by a government agency that is charged with protecting the public’s health and environment is unacceptable and needs to be reversed,” Eric Jantz, staff attorney of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which represents ENDAUM, said. “Rather than playing by the rules, the rules are being played.”
The complaint alleges that the state agency bypassed the normal regulatory processes to benefit HRI, a subsidiary of Texas-based Uranium Resources Inc., which plans to mine uranium in the Navajo communities of Churchrock and Crownpoint.
ENDAUM has alleged that HRI’s in-situ mining process would contaminate large areas of groundwater, including the primary drinking water source for approximately 15,000 people in the Eastern Navajo Agency.
Mat Lueras, vice president of Corporate Development for URI, said that given the anniversary of the Churchrock spill, “We were anticipating something coming out. We just view this as another tactic by New Mexico Environmental Law Center to delay our plans. It’s a similar argument they made against the NRC with the 10th Circuit ruling granting the license, and also the one that went to the Supreme Court, which was ultimately denied.
“We don’t think that they have ever been able to prove that our operations will harm the community and that our procedures will cause any adverse effects to the environment and the community. Like we’ve always stated, we continue to work with and educate the communities and try to be a good corporate citizen as much as possible.”
Lueras said the permit application is in timely renewal with the state and they are following all of the procedures and the guidelines of NMED to get the injection permit out of timely renewal so that mining can begin.
ENDAUM’s complaint states that the Environment Department does not have authority to accept HRI’s discharge permit application as a permit renewal under the Water Quality Act. According to the Law Center, the Water Quality Act regulations provide that the Environment Department may issue a discharge permit for no longer than seven years. HRI’s permit originally was approved Nov. 2, 1989, and was renewed last in 1996, but that HRI has failed to renew its permit since then.
The Law Center alleges that even though HRI’s permit expired in 2003, the Environment Department still considers the company to have a valid permit which would allow it to conduct uranium mining activities at its Section 8 site in Churchrock.
The Law Center stated in a press release that it had obtained documents through an Inspection of Public Records Act Request “that clearly demonstrate that the New Mexico Environment Department is willing to bend its own rules to assure that permit applicants’ financial needs are met.”
When the Environment Department took a regulatory position that HRI believed would hurt it financially and complained, the deputy environment secretary personally intervened to change the department’s position without having any basis in law or seeking public input, the Law Center alleges.
Ryan Flynn, general counsel for the Environment Department, said Friday that HRI’s permit application was timely received and is currently under review. The department has not made any final determination, he said.
Regarding the ENDAUM complaint and press release from the Law Center, Flynn said, “There are certain allegations that have been made that we disagree with,” such as the claim that the Environment Department is bending the rules to benefit HRI.
“We disagree with that statement. We respect the integrity of the legal process and we adhere to all of our rules and regulations. We have not bent any of the rules,” Flynn said. “I believe that this lawsuit is part of a strategy being developed by the Environmental Law Center to prevent this type of mining. It really has more to do with objecting to in-situ mining itself. I believe this is part of a concerted strategy to prevent that specific type of mining from ever going forward in New Mexico.”
According to court documents, Bob Gallagher – former president of New Mexico Oil & Gas Association and now a consultant for URI – sent a message to Bill Olson of NMED’s Ground Water Quality Bureau on April 6 stating that they were in receipt of a letter from Olson regarding the status of their permit, DP-558. He said Olson stated that “HRI must receive a renewal of DP-558 from NMED before mining can commence.”
Gallagher said it was the position of URI that that sentence “is in direct contradiction” with an NMED regulation, and that the particular section clearly states that their permit “shall not expire until the application for renewal has been approved or disapproved.”
Gallagher requested clarification. “It is our desire to see the sentence eliminated, which would be in compliance with the existing regulations, or to receive a complete clarification of NMED position concerning this subject matter,” he said.
On May 27, while Olson was on vacation, a revised and reissued letter was sent to HRI under Olson’s signature and signed on his behalf without his knowledge, review or approval, Olson stated in a June 2 memo to HRI. “This letter revised and removed language in a New Mexico Environment Department March 23, 2011, letter, authored by myself in my capacity as the Bureau Chief of the GWQB,” Olson said, adding that he did not authorize the revised letter.
In a June 1 message from George Schuman of the Environment Department to Olson regarding the revised letter to HRI, Schuman said he received a voice mail message and subsequent phone call the morning of May 26 informing him that Deputy Secretary Raj Solomon asked to meet with him. Schuman said he met with Solomon that morning in his temporary office space on the third floor of the Runnels Building where they discussed Olson’s March 23 letter to HRI.
“The Deputy Secretary indicated that the sentence pertaining to the need to obtain a renewal permit for DP-558 prior to commencement of mining was hindering Hydro Resource’s ability to obtain financing for their mine development project and directed me to reissue the March 23 letter absent the problematic sentence, or to propose alternative language to the problematic sentence.”
Schuman said he removed the problematic sentence and added language stating that NMED was in receipt of Hydro Resource’s updated renewal application and was currently conducting technical review of the updated application. “I forwarded the revised letter to the Deputy Secretary during the afternoon of May 26 via email and received an email response directing me to issue the letter. I signed the letter on behalf of Bill Olson and issued the revised letter on May 27,” Schuman stated.
Court records indicate that Schuman sent the letter to Solomon at 4:08 p.m. May 26. At 5:42 p.m. Solomon responded to Schuman, stating: “The letter looks good. Please sign and email me a pdf version of the signed copy.”
The revised and reissued May 27 letter was sent to Mark Pelizza of HRI and was signed “George Schuman for W. Olson.”