10/27/2011 Gallup Independent: The Grand Canyon – Protection of areas near national park from uranium mining a step closer
10/27/2011 The Grand Canyon – Protection of areas near national park from uranium mining a step closer By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent: WINDOW ROCK – The Obama administration took a critical step Wednesday toward protecting more than a million acres of public land around Grand Canyon National Park from mineral exploration and new uranium mining for the next 20 years. The Bureau of Land Management released the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Northern Arizona Proposed Withdrawal which identifies the preferred alternative of withdrawing about 1 million acres from new mining claims under the 1872 Mining Law, subject to valid existing rights. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is expected to formally finalize Wednesday’s decision in 30 days.
“Uranium remains an important part of our nation’s comprehensive energy resources, but it is appropriate to pause, identify what the predicted level of mining and its impacts on the Grand Canyon would be, and decide what level of risk is acceptable to take with this national treasure,” BLM Director Bob Abbey said.
“The preferred alternative would allow for cautious, continued development with strong oversight that could help us fill critical gaps in our knowledge about water quality and environmental impacts of uranium mining in the area,” he said.
The Final EIS estimates that as many as 11 uranium mines could be operational over the next 20 years under the preferred alternative, including the four mines currently approved.
“It’s been a long struggle for us to preserve our homelands,” Carletta Tilousi said Wednesday evening. Tilousi, a member of the Havasupai Tribal Council, lives in Supai Village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. She also works with a group of Havasupai elders who have taken the lead to protect the Grand Canyon and sacred places.
“I’ve watched my elders travel in and out of the canyon to come to these public meetings and voice their opinions,” she said. “In my community it’s really been the traditional elders and the traditional practitioners that have really taken the lead to stand up in front of the federal officials and learn about the EIS and the BLM process and the Forest Service process.
“I’m very, very surprised, and at the same time I’m very happy that the government is finally listening to my people after many years. It’s really the elders’ victory. With the support of the Council they have been able to succeed in preserving it.”
Tilousi said cancer rates have risen in their small community, something she attributes to the federal government’s above-ground atomic testing at Nevada Test Site.
“We were downwinders of that and I have noticed that a lot of my people are coming face to face and battling cancer. It’s just another struggle from uranium mining and the nuclear industry that’s taken many lives from my community and the neighboring tribes. If the U.S. government really wants to preserve human life, I think this is the right thing to do – a million acres be put aside for preservation. No one wants to lose life over profit,” she said.
The Arizona 1 mine is 15 miles northwest of the village. Another mine is located 25 miles away as the crow flies, right above their watershed, Havasu Creek, she said. “That’s the river that we sustain ourselves with down in Supai Canyon.” Tribal members are conducting ongoing water testing to monitor for heavy metals.
“We’ve learned so much from the Navajo people and their challenges, that we really stood up against this. Since 1984 this has been an issue that my tribe’s been fighting,” she said. “It’s just been a lifelong struggle for me. When uranium was first brought up, I was probably 13 years old. Now I’m 41. When I watch my elders, all the challenges and fights that they’ve been through, it’s inevitable that I’m going to be old and still continuing this work.”
The Navajo Nation submitted comments in May through Navajo Environmental Protection Agency Executive Director Stephen B. Etsitty and David Taylor from the Department of Justice, in support of the preferred alternative.
The Nation also said that if the Interior intends to allow for limited uranium mining and milling where valid existing rights are found, then it must be willing to provide adequate resources and technical support to the Navajo Nation for improved emergency planning and response capabilities to address any potential releases of hazardous and radioactive substances along transport routes, especially any that traverse the Navajo Nation.
In addition, Navajo requested enhanced government-to-government consultation on any subsequent federal decisions that could impact Navajo Nation resources, as well as enhanced federal policy implementation supporting the role of the Navajo Nation in any subsequent decisions the state of Arizona may make regarding uranium mining and processing.
Tilousi said one of her main concerns with the operating mine approximately 15 miles away on the North Rim is radioactive particles being carried on the prevailing wind at 30 to 40 miles per hour.
“It’s coming our direction and it’s coming through the air. People can’t see it or smell it or touch it, but I know, I sense that it’s coming through. That’s the scariest part. You don’t know how it’s affecting you until way later. And then it’s too late.”
Conservation groups commended Salazar and the Obama administration for the decision to protect public lands.
“The Grand Canyon is an international icon, a biodiversity hot spot and a huge economic engine for the Southwest,” Taylor McKinnon, public-lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “Protecting it from uranium mining pollution is the right thing to do.”
10/14/2011 Law firm selected as special prosecutor By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent: WINDOW ROCK – The law firm that successfully prosecuted former Navajo Nation Chairman Peter MacDonald and other tribal officials 20 years ago has been named to succeed Alan Balaran as the Nation’s special prosecutor. Deputy Attorney General Dana Bobroff announced Thursday that the Special Division of Window Rock District Court appointed the nationally prominent Rothstein Law Firm to continue the investigations into Navajo Nation Council delegates’ use of discretionary funds, alleged crimes by tribal officials involved in contracts or payments to OnSat Network Communications and BCDS Manufacturing, the tribal ranch program and other matters assigned to the Special Division.
US News & World Report, in its 2010 ranking of “Best Law Firms,” gave the Rothstein Law Firm (Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom, Schoenburg & Bienvenu LLP) the highest possible ratings both nationally and regionally.
Though Bobroff was not at liberty to release the name of Balaran’s successor when asked Wednesday, she said she thought the Navajo people would be reassured by the Special Division’s choice.
The Rothstein Law Firm was the first firm ever retained by the Special Division as special prosecutor. Balaran was notified a little more than a month ago by the three-judge Special Division that his contract would not be renewed.
“Mr. Balaran has graciously agreed to assist with the transition of the special prosecutor cases prior to beginning his new assignment with the federal court,” Bobroff stated in the press release. Balaran received his sixth appointment in August to serve as U.S. District Court special master for victims of the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing.
Asked Thursday about his successor, Balaran said, “The firm comes with a superlative reputation.”
The firm’s Richard W. Hughes and Eric N. Dahlstrom, both of whom have been members of the Navajo Nation Bar Association for at least 30 years, will lead the special prosecutor investigations.
Hughes, whose office is in Santa Fe, started the firm’s Indian law practice. Prior to becoming a partner in September 1988, he spent eight years in legal service on the Navajo Nation and was a lead attorney in the MacDonald prosecutions, according to the firm’s website. His areas of practice include Indian law and civil litigation.
Dalhstrom, whose office is in Tempe, was Navajo Nation Deputy Attorney General from 1987 through 1991 and has practiced Indian law for more than 30 years, representing tribes in Arizona and Wisconsin. His areas of practice include Indian law, natural resources and civil litigation.
“The Office of the Attorney General is fully supportive of the appointment of the Rothstein Law Firm and stays fully committed to the resolution of these matters pursuant to Navajo laws, principles and cultural values – which requires that those who are proven to have engaged in wrongdoing are held accountable,” Bobroff stated.
“The Office of the Attorney General has the utmost confidence in the Navajo Nation’s system of justice that those who have not engaged in wrongdoing will have their names cleared,” she said.
Nearly a year ago, on Oct. 20, 2010, former Navajo Nation Attorney General Louis Denetsosie announced that Balaran had filed criminal charges against more than 70 of the 88 delegates from the 21st Navajo Nation Council. The charges alleged conspiracy, fraud, forgery, abuse of office and theft of funds ranging from a low of $650 to a high of $279,175.
This past May, after being stymied in his efforts to prosecute the cases, Balaran filed a plan with the Navajo Nation Supreme Court to streamline the court process by withdrawing the outstanding criminal complaints without prejudice – meaning they can be refiled – against all but a few defendants.
In place of the criminal complaints, around the end of July Balaran filed a single civil complaint charging more than 80 current and former Navajo Nation officials with breach of fiduciary duty, including Denetsosie and current Attorney General Harrison Tsosie, who has formally delegated all his responsibilities concerning the special prosecutor to Bobroff.
10/13/2011 Tribe: Public lands threatened by copper, uranium mining By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent: WINDOW ROCK – Representatives of the San Carlos Apache Tribe received support Tuesday from Navajo Nation Council delegates in their opposition to a bill which would allow a subsidiary of foreign mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton to acquire more than 2,400 acres in Tonto National Forest for a massive underground copper mine. U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.-1, is sponsor of H.R. 1904: Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2011. The land exchange would require Congress to lift a decades old mining ban within the 760 acres of federal lands known as Oak Flat, which were set aside from mining in 1955 by executive order of the Eisenhower administration.
Impacts from the mining operation will result in the “wholesale desecration of the sacred site and traditional cultural property that is encompassed by the Oak Flat, Apache Leap, and Gaan Canyon area,” San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler stated in written testimony submitted in June to the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
“Chich’il Bildagoteel,” or Oak Flat, is home to all powerful Mountain Spirits, or Gaan, and a place of ancient settlements and burial sites. Because the Apache people’s relationship to the land is intertwined with their religious and cultural identity, it is believed “the potential harms to be visited upon this holy place threaten the cultural extinction of the Apache.”
Steve Titla, San Carlos general counsel, and Susan B. Montgomery, special legal counsel to the tribe, presented Chairman Rambler’s concerns to the Nabik’iyati’ Committee. Rambler was in D.C. to meet with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., on the mining issue to ask him not to hold a hearing on the bill when it comes to his committee, Montgomery said.
“We should be sending a strong message to Representative Gosar, saying, ‘You’re not going to have our vote if you continue pursuing this bill,’” Shiprock Delegate Russell Begaye said. He suggested that Navajo and other Arizona tribes make that same proclamation. “I think those types of action are in order.”
Gosar also drew criticism Wednesday when he and Sen. John McCain along with other Arizona and Utah congressional leaders introduced the Northern Arizona Mining Continuity Act of 2011, which would bar the Department of the Interior from withdrawing approximately 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon from mining consideration for the next 20 years, as proposed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in June.
The effect of the bill would be to allow uranium and other mining operations to go forward as soon as possible.
“Senator McCain and Congressman Gosar have turned their backs on thousands of constituents living in northern Arizona who oppose uranium mining,” Roger Clark of Grand Canyon Trust said.
“Havasupai object to their sole source of water being contaminated. All five of the Native nations surrounding the Grand Canyon have banned uranium mining due to its lethal history in the region. And hundreds of businesses, local governments, ranchers, and sporting groups support Secretary Salazar’s proposed ban on new claims because it protects their livelihoods. Who are these elected representatives protecting, other than foreign-owned nuclear industries?” he said.
In respect to copper mine, Begaye said since the Navajo Nation deals with BHP Billiton, they should send the company a resolution or letter to say, “We are opposing your desecration mining in this area.” The bill allows for the company to voluntarily withdraw from the land exchange, effectively terminating the land withdrawal, he said.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Forest Service would convey the 2,400 acres to Resolution Copper in exchange for company-owned land of an equivalent value. Of the company land, about 1,200 acres would become part of the National Forest System while about 4,200 acres would be administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
The bill also directs the Forest Service to sell around 550 acres to the town of Superior, Ariz. Proceeds from the sale, estimated at roughly $1 million, would be spent to acquire other lands. Begaye said purchase of the land by the Nations could deter part of the proposed action.
Resolution Copper has circulated various job figures related to the mining project, however, “The job number changes as often as I change my suit,” Montgomery said. “We do think the jobs would be minimal at the location and minimal for the residents of Arizona.”
Montgomery said it is speculated that Resolution will employ a fully automated “mine of the future” technology, similar to what Rio Tinto recently launched in Australia, which allows it to control 11 mines with robotized drilling, automated haul trucks and driverless ore trains from an operations center 800 miles away.
“We are speculating because they keep a lot of this very close to the vest,” she said. “It will probably be run out of somewhere in Utah where Rio Tinto’s operations are. This is not going to be jobs to benefit the local people very much.”
In the same vein, Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva challenged Gosar, McCain and other Arizona mining bill co-sponsors “to explain why they support polluting the Grand Canyon area for the sake of mining company profits that rarely stay in Arizona and in some cases flow directly overseas.”
“The only people who support this are mining industry lobbyists and a handful of lawmakers ready to carry their water,” Grijalva said. “It’s cynical to tell the people of Arizona in a down economy that this bill will help them when we all know these jobs won’t be local, the profits will go out of state or overseas, and the uranium will be exported to the highest bidder.”
Titla said Begaye’s idea of sending a message to Gosar was a great idea. “I think that we can make a renewed effort to tribes to send that kind of message to Representative Gosar because in the recent redistricting, the San Carlos Tribe stood with all the other tribes in the state legislative district. I think that if those maps are passed by the Department of Justice … once we get that done we can stand together and send that kind of message.”
Thirteen tribes in addition to Navajo oppose H.R. 1904 or its predecessor bills, including Hopi, Zuni, Hualapai, Jicarilla and White Mountain Apache nations. Resolution has sought passage of the bill since around 2005.
Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize, who was asked to sponsor a supporting resolution, said, “This issue is very, very important to us. As you heard, we are also fighting for the San Francisco Peaks, Dooko’oo’sliid … We stand on what we believe, and we believe in all our sacred sites.”
10/12/2011 Hopi opposes groundwater use at Arizona Snowbowl By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau,Gallup Independent: WINDOW ROCK – A Navajo Nation Council resolution supporting the use of groundwater to make artificial snow at the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff is under fire by the Hopi Tribe. “The Hopi Tribal Council does not join or support a recently proposed Navajo Nation Council resolution recommending the use of groundwater for snow-making on Nuvatukyaovi,” the Hopi name for the sacred mountain, Hopi stated Tuesday in a press release. Hopi believe the only water appropriate for Nuvatukyaovi is natural water as provided by rain and snow. “There can be no exceptions,” they said.
“The Hopi Tribal Council, all known Hopi religious practitioners, the Hopi Tribe and its people are still, and always will be, opposed to the use of any snow-making operations on Nuvatukyaovi,” Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa said. “The Navajo proposal is not a solution to the issues facing the tribes with respect to Arizona Snowbowl’s expansions on Nuvatukyaovi.”
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Walter Phelps, sponsor of the resolution, said Tuesday that the Nation does not have an official position on the use of groundwater and the resolution “will stimulate discussion on the issue. We just need to get some of that clarified. We also need to discuss alternatives.”
One possible option in discussion is to buy into the Snowbowl.
“There’s an offer by the developer. He’s willing to sell a portion back to us,” Delegate Katherine Benally told Steve Titla, general counsel for the San Carlos Apache Tribe, during Tuesday’s meeting of the Nabik’iyati’ Committee.
San Carlos representatives came to ask for Navajo Nation support in protecting Oak Flat, one of its sacred sites threatened by copper mining. Benally asked whether San Carlos would be interested in “sharing resources” to buy into the ski resort.
“That is a very interesting proposal that I will share with my Chairman,” Titla said.
Splitting the $15 million cost for a 30 percent stake in the Snowbowl with other interested Arizona tribes which hold the mountain sacred would give them an equity stake and a seat at the table on discussions of artificial snow-making.
Navajo first began discussing purchase of the ski resort two years ago when the price stood at $48 million. Since then, the cost of subsequent legal cases has been attached to the selling price and has driven up the cost to $52 million.
In the alternative, Phelps’ resolution supports the use of groundwater as opposed to reclaimed or recovered-reclaimed water in the snow-making process on Dook’o’oosliid – the Navajo name for the sacred mountain – to prevent its desecration.
“Water – regardless of its source – is a limited and critical natural resource in the Southwest and the Hopi Tribe continues to oppose any artificial snow-making by these means,” according to Louella Nahsonhoya, Hopi public information officer.
Hopi filed suit in August against the city of Flagstaff, challenging its September 2010 decision not to amend or cancel the contract for sale of 1.5 million gallons per day of reclaimed wastewater to the Snowbowl for artificial snow-making.
Hopi said the city already is using more than its fair share of water, and any plans to sell water to the Snowbowl would only worsen the problem. “In addition, the sale of water for snow-making so that a select few can benefit, violates the public interest in wise water use for our region,” Hopi said.
Nuvatukyaovi is an important, sacred place for the Hopi which holds a central and essential role in Hopi culture, traditions and way of life. For Navajo, Dook’o’oosliid has a unique religious significance and a “complete connection with daily songs and prayers to their supernatural beings.”
Navajo, Hopi, the Havasupai Nation, the Hualapai Tribe and others sued to protect the mountain, but in 2008, the 9th Circuit Court failed to recognize the sacred stature of the mountain and allowed the U.S. Forest Service to issue a permit to the Snowbowl for the manufacture of artificial snow from reclaimed water. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, which allowed the 9th Circuit opinion to stand.
Phelps’ resolution was posted on the Navajo Nation Council website last Friday. Tuesday was the final day for public comment before the bill can be considered by the standing committees, however, legislative counsel stated last week that the public is free to provide comments at any time, including at committee meetings.
Phelps said he does not expect the resolution to go before the Resources and Development Committee until the last week of October, so it will not make Council’s fall session agenda.
10/11/2011 Hopi challenges BIA over water contamination By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent: KYKOTSMOVI – The Hopi Tribe has taken legal action against the Bureau of Indian Affairs over its operation of the Tuba City Open Dump and is seeking immediate restoration of contaminated groundwater that is migrating toward the Upper Moenkopi supply wells. Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa said the tribe has spent more than 12 years trying to get the BIA to adequately address the issue of groundwater contamination stemming from the open dump since it was shut down in 1997. “Simply put, the BIA has failed to comply with the requirements that are in place to protect the Hopi Tribe’s drinking water,” he stated Monday in a press release.
The Tuba City Open Dump has contaminated groundwater that the Hopi Villages of Upper Moenkopi and Lower Moencopi rely on as their only source of drinking water, according to Louella Nahsonhoya, public information officer for the Hopi Tribe.
“Since the mid-1990s, the Hopi Tribe has been working under the guidance of the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a comprehensive program for the maintenance and protection of the Tribe’s drinking water sources on the reservation,” Shingoitewa said. “We have a series of ordinances in place which conform to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.”
The Hopi claim the BIA did little, if anything, to manage what was being disposed at the dump during its years of operation and exacerbated the contamination by digging waste trenches that brought the waste material into close contact with the water table, approximately 15 feet below surface, according to Nahsonhoya.
The BIA has failed to take any action to prevent the further migration of the contamination that is now within the cone of influence of the Moenkopi supply wells, she said.
According to U.S. EPA, the dump – located on 28 acres of Hopi land and two acres of the Navajo Nation – received waste from 1940 to 1997. EPA signed an enforcement agreement with BIA in 2010, requiring investigation and evaluation of feasible cleanup options. BIA is the lead federal agency responsible for closing the site.
A notice of endangerment and intent to sue filed by Hopi in May 2009 stated that the unlined dump lies directly on top of the Navajo Aquifer and that supply wells located about 4,000 feet west of the dump provide water for the public water supply system that serves the Upper Village of Moenkopi. The Lower Village obtains water from two springs approximately 7,000 feet southwest of the dump.
At the time of the 2009 filing, the Hopi Tribe’s consultant had identified a contaminant plume that included uranium and elevated levels of inorganic contaminants which had migrated more than 4,000 feet downgradient from the dump. Groundwater exceeding the maximum contaminant level for uranium was within 2,500 feet of the village spring and supply wells, posing an imminent threat.
10/11/2011 Navajo hopes to regulate uranium ore transport By Kathy Helms Gallup Independent, Dine Bureau: WINDOW ROCK – A resolution opposing the transport of uranium ore and product across the Navajo Nation, with the exception of hauling legacy waste to a disposal facility outside Navajo Indian Country, has been approved by the Law and Order Committee and is making its way to the Navajo Nation Council. The resolution sponsored by Delegate Duane Tsinigine of Bodaway/Gap would amend the Navajo Nation Code to regulate the activity of non-Navajos on publicly granted rights of way across Navajo land. “This is mainly regarding the health and welfare of the Navajo Nation, bottom line. It’s a protection act,” Tsinigine said.
Cold War-era uranium mining left a legacy of radiological contamination and sickness on the Navajo Nation. Now, ore from Denison Mines north of the Grand Canyon is being trucked to the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah, and on the New Mexico side of the reservation, there also is the prospect of future uranium mining.
“There is transporting of uranium going across Navajo land without much enforcement. This will bring the enforcement,” Tsinigine said.
The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency and the Division of Public Safety, subject to approval of the Resources and Development Committee, would develop regulations necessary to implement the intent of the law, such as designating reasonable license fees, bonding requirements, curfews, and route restrictions for the product being transported across the Navajo Nation.
Greg Kelly, an attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice’s Natural Resources Unit, helped redraft the resolution to avoid conflicts with federal law. The original resolution was introduced during the 21st Council by Delegate Thomas Walker Jr., and reintroduced by Tsinigine in May with modifications.
When Tsinigine’s resolution initially went through DOJ, they flagged four issues, Kelly said. “One of those issues is that there is uranium byproduct on Navajo trust lands that we want to be able to transport and dispose of and get off of Navajo Nation trust property. So the legislation needed to be changed to reflect that that would be a permissible transport.
“Second, we did not want to be seen necessarily as ceding our jurisdiction,” he said. “The way that the legislation was drafted at the time suggested that our jurisdiction over non-Indians on the Navajo Nation was limited by case law. We wanted to put it forth in a positive way in which we have jurisdiction over non-Indians when the health, welfare and safety of the Navajo people are at issue.”
In addition, transportation of hazardous substances, including uranium, is fully preempted by the federal government and federal law. “In order to at least withstand litigation over legislation, we have to tailor our legislation to be within the federal requirements,” Kelly said.
Though the resolution as drafted calls for advance notice of 120 days by any carrier of uranium ore or product, that requirement conflicts with federal regulations, which stipulate seven-day advance notice to a governor in writing, or four days actual notice in advance. Kelly recommended that language be changed to conform with federal law.
“The reason we reference the state governor and local law enforcement officials is because that’s what the federal regulations do,” he said. “They require that states get notified, but not tribes … and as little as four days’ notice is legally permissible. If we have a 120 day requirement, I’m pretty confident that would not stand should anybody challenge that in court.”
Chairman Edmund Yazzie had questions regarding Eastern Navajo Agency. “On the Arizona side it’s strictly 100 percent Navajo Reservation, Navajo land. Now when you think of the eastern side, you have your checkerboard area,” he said, which is multi-jurisdictional, particularly in areas such as Churchrock, Mariano Lake and Pinedale.
“I do support this legislation because there have been threats in the Churchrock area, saying that they’re going to come on and get some more uranium. The people said no and the Nation said no,” Yazzie said. “If a non-Indian rolls three semis in, and they start shipping the uranium, how much jurisdiction does that give our Navajo Nation Police? We need to give the local law enforcement authority also to stop these trucks.”
By promulgating regulations, Kelly said, Navajo could designate which officials must be notified by transporters in lieu of a governor or particular law enforcement official. “My understanding is that as part of the permitting process for these transporters, they have to give notice to whoever is on file with the federal agency that’s permitting them,” he said.
“I think we could address the jurisdiction issue in Eastern Agency simply by saying, ‘It’s Navajo Indian Country, federal agency. Here’s the people that we want to have notified, and you have that obligation.’ We can’t necessarily ensure that they will follow through on that, but I think they would.”
Law and Order’s Alton Shepherd recommended notification be given to the Nation’s president, local law enforcement and Navajo EPA. He also offered an amendment to strike the ‘no less than 120 days’ notice where it appears in the resolution, which was approved by the committee.
10/10/2011 Uranium mining license: Water wells, pipeline needed by Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent: WINDOW ROCK – U.S. Sen. Tom Udall sought assurances Thursday from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that Navajos living in Crownpoint would have a safe source of drinking water if Hydro Resources Inc. carries through with its plans for in situ mining of uranium in the Westwater Canyon Aquifer. In a hearing on cleanup of legacy uranium sites before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, Udall also pressed the NRC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on proposed future uranium mining operations.
“Crownpoint is the location of a proposed in-situ leach uranium recovery operation near the Churchrock legacy site, and I understand the NRC has set up a license for HRI at the Crownpoint site that is dependent on several conditions, including legacy cleanup,” Udall said, and asked the NRC to clarify the status and content of HRI’s permit.
Michael Weber of the NRC said HRI, a subsidiary of Uranium Resources Inc., is in the process of completing some preparatory activities and he expects the agency to issue a letter to HRI in the near future, authorizing them to proceed.
The Westwater aquifer, a major source of drinking water for Crownpoint, “is fairly good water,” which the community has relied on for a long time, Udall said. “If the requirements of the permit were fulfilled, could the NRC and the EPA guarantee a safe and a consistent water source for the Crownpoint community?”
Weber said a “unique” provision of the NRC license is it requires HRI to provide an alternate water source for the local community before the company begins mining. “Typically, the in-situ recovery facilities are located at some distance from communities and so that doesn’t present itself, but in this situation, because of the unique circumstances involving HRI-Crownpoint, that was a provision in the licensing of the facility,” he said.
HRI must replace two Navajo Tribal Utility Authority water supply wells and three Bureau of Indian Affairs wells. In addition, the company must construct the necessary water pipeline and provide funds so the existing water supply systems of NTUA and BIA can be connected to the new wells.
“I would point out that in the history of in-situ recovery regulation, we have not seen a situation where a local supply well has been adversely impacted by the mining,” Weber said. However, he added, there have been “excursions.”
“An excursion is where an elevated level has been detected in either a monitoring well laterally, distant from the minefield, or above or below the aquifer that’s being mined,” he said. “If those excursions are detected, the licensee has to take action to correct that situation and at the end of active mining has to restore the aquifer back to suitable water-quality standards.”
Udall said he thought that license condition was “greatly appreciated by the local community.”
Eric Jantz, attorney for Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, which has vigorously opposed HRI’s plans to mine uranium in Crownpoint and Churchrock, said, “I have not heard anyone in Crownpoint express appreciation that License Condition 10.27 was included. All of the people I’ve spoken with are just pissed off that the project was licensed in the first place.”
An interesting problem for HRI, he said, is that in 1991, HRI applied to New Mexico Environment Department for an aquifer designation for its Crownpoint site, which the state granted. However, EPA, exercising its supervisory authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, overruled NMED.
“In rejecting HRI’s aquifer designation application, EPA said that the Westwater aquifer at the Crownpoint site is an underground source of drinking water. I can’t see how – either technically or politically – EPA could backtrack from this position. All this seems to suggest HRI couldn’t mine at the Crownpoint site even if it wanted to,” Jantz said.
“Given that Section 17 and Unit 1 are Indian Country and subject to the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act, that only leaves HRI with Section 8.” The 2005 act prohibited uranium mining and processing in Navajo Indian Country.
Chris Shuey of Southwest Research Information Center said NTUA’s management board adopted a resolution in December 1997 asserting that it would not allow replacement of its two municipal wells in Crownpoint.
“In March 2005, Dr. John Leeper with the Navajo Water Resources Department gave an expert declaration in which he concluded that the Westwater aquifer would continue to be a major source of water supply for the Eastern Agency, even with development of the Navajo-Gallup project water line, and that the Navajo-Gallup project was never intended to replace the use or reliance on groundwater for municipal and agricultural supply in the Eastern Agency,” Shuey said.
NRC’s condition that HRI provide an alternate water supply was not opposed, Shuey said, “since it was an acknowledgment by even NRC that, despite HRI’s assurances to the contrary, ISL mining could not be done at the Crownpoint wellfield without impacting at least NTUA-1 and possibly impacting NTUA -2.”
NRC called the location of proposed ISL mining within a half mile of a currently operating municipal water supply well “unprecedented” in the history of ISL mining, Shuey said.
In the 1997 resolution, which was adopted unanimously, NTUA said the NRC proposal did not address future operation and maintenance expenses the utility may incur due to calcification of its water distribution system, nor future water quality and quantity concerns in connection with the relocated water supply wells and restoration of groundwater after mining.
“The Management Board directs NTUA management to inform HRI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it will not agree to plug and abandon its Crownpoint wells.”