MAC: Mines and Communities

Hidden legacy: Navajo Nation grapples with uranium mining issue

Published by MAC on 2005-02-24

Hidden legacy: Navajo Nation grapples with uranium mining issue

Years of production leads to problems for tribe

Patrick Barnett, GALLUP NM

24th February 2005

Those who know anything about the history of Gallup and McKinley County know that without the advent of coal mining, town founders may never have broken ground. David Gallup, namesake of the community and paymaster of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, came here to help initiate the industry that gave Gallup its future. Between 1880 and 1890, thousands of immigrants flooded into the area to reap a piece of the American dream, working hard to achieve their vision of prosperity for themselves and their families. According to a Gallup Historical Society pamphlet at the Rex Museum, 57 coalmines were in simultaneous operation at the peak of the mining period, pumping out 70 car coal trains on a daily basis. Today, those coal trains still run, however their previous numbers have been reduced to less than half of that tremendous volume from over 100 years ago.

The legacy of coal mining is readily apparent. All one need do is take a stroll downtown and read the signs naming the main drag. Moreover, riding along the inner-loop mountain bike trail that begins behind the community service center, you become instantly overtaken by a very pungent odor that seems to come out of nowhere. Upon further inspection, you can discover the source of this smell, a 30 foot crack in the ground plastered with the dark residue of smoke coming from the smoldering remains of a subterranean mine.

There is another type of mining that many four-corners transplants like myself aren’t really aware of, a type of mining that has occurred in this area since the late fifties: uranium mining. The topic of uranium isn’t anything new to locals. I, on the other hand, began learning about uranium mining only after living in McKinley country for a few months, and suspect many like me still don‘t know of its existence. I quickly found out that there was much more to learn than I had ever imagined, despite the lack of immediate information available on the subject.

Driving down highway 566, one can pass many scenic formations en route to the interior Eastern Navajo Agency. Most people use the road as an access to side roads, leading to places like Superman canyon and Pinedale, or use it as a popular road biking venue. The reason it is paved all the way to its end isn‘t because of its popularity though; its because a uranium mine is at the end. If you keep following the highway to its terminus, you will be met by a sign informing you of a “dead end ahead.” You have come to the one of the many mines owned by United Nuclear Incorporated, the predominant company to do business in this area.

The fact is that there are more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines scattered across the greater Navajo Nation, dozens within an hour drive of anyone's front door. Their proliferation occurred mainly during the seventies as nuclear power became the popular new way of meeting America's booming energy needs, not to mention Cold War weapons of mass destruction. It turned out that the geology of the area wasn’t only great for coal extraction, but also the exploitation of the stuff that’s locally known as yellowcake-"leetsoh" in Navajo.

There is no celebration of uranium as there is coal however. You won’t find uranium avenues, works of uranium public art, or uranium memorials. The closest thing you’ll get to its outward recognition is the Uranium Café in Grants. There are many reasons for the public’s amnesia about uranium, some perfectly forgivable, some not so much so. The fact is that uranium is an extremely toxic substance that has quietly affected countless peoples lives across the greater Northwest New Mexico region.

The connections between uranium and health are well understood by scientists who study its effects. Uranium exposure has been linked to kidney failure as well as various forms of cancer in laboratory tests. One can catch glimpses of stories about local people who suffer the effects of having experienced prolonged exposure to uranium. These people are usually retired Navajo miners.

There has never been a comprehensive study conducted of the hundreds if not thousands of miners who performed the dirty work of extraction during production hey days. Perhaps it is too costly for any one government or group to take on. Perhaps the job of locating and organizing all these people is too much to undertake. Another reason is simply that many of the people most affected aren’t around anymore, succumbing to illnesses of which you can make an educated guess about the cause.

However, after a long struggle for compensation, the federal government finally recognized health claims made by some miners. In 1992, Congress passed RECA, a law that entitled qualifying miners up to $100,000 in some cases. What many ex-miners have discovered however is that even this payment amount isn’t enough to cover the many costs associated with cancer treatments. Many don’t have any form of life insurance whatsoever and $100,000 doesn’t go far enough to pay for extended hospital stays, radiation therapy and other forms of care.

There is another kind of study going on these days regarding uranium. Gerald Brown is the Project Administrative of CRUMP, which stands for Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project. What this group does is exactly what it says-which is to measure the amount of uranium contamination in communities that might be affected by past operations. Another facet of their mission is to lobby government bodies to legislate on behalf of those affected, mainly by providing money to clean up polluted areas and stop further mining from happening.

CRUMP is now in its second year, having received the results from meticulous testing of radon emissions in the greater church Rock Chapter area (radon is a toxic gas that results from uranium decomposition). Brown was rather surprised at the study results, commenting that many areas he didn‘t suspect as high-impact zones gave heavy readings, while other area showed less contamination.

We took a little trip up highway 566. I felt like I was on a tour of a place that I had never been before, even after traveling that way countless times before. A decrepit old building standing alone to the west of the road a couple of miles past the Mustang gas station marks the spot of a past mine sight. You can pull off the road, walk up to a faded “no trespassing” sign and gaze out at old cement foundations where old mineshaft structures once stood.

Driving further up the road, a little ways past the paved turn-off to Pinedale, you come to the remains of the largest radioactive spill in US history. Back on July 16th, 1979, millions of tons of uranium wastewater breeched the damn holding back its tailings ponds. The flood roared down the Puerco River for two days before it finally came to a stop. No one was warned of the coming danger, and as a result many sheepherders and ranchers along the river suffered severe chemical exposure as the wastewater poured downstream. Even when the disaster ended, thousands of acres of lands had been polluted, leaving good grazing lands saturated with radioactive material.

Just before the fence at 566’s dead end, there is a turn-off to the right that leads to small community directly north of another mine site. We drove right on up and right through a little piece of reservation land, all the way up to where some peoples lots stood. They certainly had their own slice of paradise, with one serious drawback however. Many peoples homes were in the shadows of an enormous tailings pile sitting right upwind from the neighborhood. Little erosion gullies course down from its base right through peoples front yards, children playing in and around them. Gerald informed me that reading taken at the edge of their property, right at the edge of the piles, gave readings of up to twenty times what is considered normal.

On our way back we turned off on pipeline road, a dirt spur leading east away from the paved highway. Not more than a couple hundred yards past the turn-off we came upon a massive flatland with countless white plastic pipes lying in rows across the expanse. Gerald explained that these were water monitoring devices put in place by UNC as mandated by federal law. We were now upon a Superfund site, which is an area so designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a place needing special attention due to extensive “hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants released into the environment.”

The road splits, and we took the turn that leads right alongside of one the holding ponds, right where a large deposit of uranium-laced water once stood. No signs are in place warning you of the danger, no information posted about what happened more than 20 years ago and how the still extant uranium is extremely harmful.

Gerald pointed out houses that lay directly behind the site. He mentioned that contaminated groundwater is seeping in their direction. The monitoring devices may be able to tell where the water is moving; they can’t unfortunately prevent it from moving into neighboring wells.

The problem with uranium is that it doesn’t go away very easily. The half-life for the substance is over 100,000 years, meaning that it will be around for as many generations into the future as you can imagine. Companies like UNC have never been able to fully clean up the messes they create, and in fact have huge legal budgets to cover the cost of lawyer’s fees. Their lawyers often argue that companies shouldn‘t be held liable for clean up at all. Oftentimes companies declare bankruptcy to avoid the costs of cleansing the land completely.

There is a good chance that Hydro-Resources Incorporated, which is an offspring company of UNC, might start up mining operations again in our area. There exists the serious possibility that the groundwater supply could become contaminated for over 15,000 eastern Navajo Agency users. You might be wondering what that means for residents of Gallup. The fact is, no one really knows exactly how the aquifers operate and how they might be connected underground. Water likes to move around when it has the opportunity. Needless to say, if HRI has its way, life will become much more complicated for the people that call Northwest New Mexico their home.

Pressing political issues and the primary organization confronting issues of uranium in the area:

ENDAUM is a very good example of a grassroots environmental justice organization. Standing for Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, it’s entire mission is to confront and stop all uranium mining from occurring on or near Navajo lands. In this mission they are unique. There exists no other organization in the state dedicated solely to fighting uranium mining.

As many know there exists a long history of environmental and social injustice concerning indigenous Americans lands, and as a result many national organizations have been formed to redress issues of Native sovereignty. Consequently, ENDAUM has enlisted the help of numerous agencies to help counteract the threat of mining. This coalition is currently at a pivotal point in their lives because the actions taken by Navajo Council members in the next legislative session could potentially make or break their decade-long effort to stop mining.

ENDAUM was formed back on February 2nd, 1995 out of a community-based effort to thwart a serious danger to the greater Crownpoint/Church Rock area. The danger was posed by an HRI mining proposal that met with acquiescent regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is the federal agency responsible for authorizing mining permits. The organization’s founders were two residents of Crownpoint, Mitchell Capitan and his wife Rita, who saw a dire need to do something about the problem HRI posed to exploit checkerboard land patterns and an uneducated populace here in McKinley County.

Capitan’s reaction was hardly complacent when he noticed a newspaper headline one morning that highlighted the proposed mine. He had worked as a lab technician for a small Mobil Oil pilot mine a few miles west of his community for six years; he knew a thing or two about uranium mining. Mr. Capitan didn’t spend any time underground working to extract ore; his wasn’t the run of the mill extraction mines of yesteryear. He worked at a different kind of mine called an In Site Leach mine (ISL for short). What he discovered working at this mine, combined with the news of Hydro Resources Incorporated’s plan to apply for an ISL mining permit in the Crownpoint area, was more than enough to propel him and his wife to start educating their community about what could happen.

What he learned was that unlike the more traditional form of mining, in which workers burrow underground to extract minerals manually, ISL mining operates in a more efficient yet hazardous way. Numerous scientific studies have shown that ISL mining leaves groundwater poisoned with the material it attempts to extract, namely uranium.

The method of ISL mining is to construct a serious of wells that connect with underground aquifers, in this case the Westwater aquifer, which encompasses the area between Church Rock to Crownpoint. After contacting water, injection wells introduce a chemical solution into the aquifer that actually dissolves uranium minerals right off underground sediments, thereby releasing the uranium into the water itself. This solution of uranium is then pumped back up to the surface by ‘production wells.’ Unfortunately, it takes scientific evidence to confirm what common sense can immediately see; there’s no way that all of the dissolved uranium can be captured safely back to the surface. Despite the best efforts of ISL mining companies to clean up affected groundwater, there has never been a case where aquifers are actually restored to baseline, that is, pre-mining levels.

Public Awareness Gain

On the first weekend of March back in 2004, ENDUAM, along with affiliated groups organized a eye-opening community event at Red Rock State Park. The event was originally designed as a town hall style debate. HRI was to send their representatives and ENDAUM theirs. It turned out that HRI went unspoken for that day. They claimed not to have known about the gathering, despite numerous letters sent out by Wynoma Foster, ENDAUM’s executive director. Notwithstanding HRI’s presence and the potential dialogue lost, the event was a powerful showing of exactly what can happen to the environment when ISL mining is conducted.

That Saturday, ENDUAM introduced two expert parties to educate the community about potential ISL mining. Michael Wallace, who is a software designer and hydro geologist by trade, gave a compelling presentation based on extensive studies of area aquifers and underground geology. His conclusion was simple: ISL mining would easily contaminate a large portion of the aquifer due to the interconnected nature of water channels and chambers 2000 feet below the surface. HRI’s argument has been that ISL mining would only affect isolated areas of the aquifer and not spill into other areas potentially used by people.

Dr. Richard Abitz, a geochemist who is currently working for the federal government at an ISL cleanup site in Ohio, was able to make the trip to Church Rock that day as well. His manner of presentation was sobering and extremely blunt; he had the demeanor of someone who knew exactly what he was talking about. The point he made over and over again was simple as well: ISL mining is basically the deliberate pollution of groundwater. He stated that despite rigorous efforts over many years to clean up the site he worked at, the groundwater still hadn’t been brought back to acceptable levels of purity. He mentioned that all other ISL projects used groundwater which was unfit for human consumption to begin with. He asked the crowd to imagine what it could do to water as pure as the Westwater aquifer, and the people of the Navajo Nation. Is short-term economic gain really worth the risk of long-term water contamination?

Current Political Developments

ISL uranium mining is a real and urgent threat to the people of the Navajo Nation, and those of the Church Rock/Crownpoint area in particular. This is the emphatic message that ENDAUM is taking to the floor of the Navajo Nation Government in Window Rock Arizona as the new Legislative Session began January 24th. I had a chance to speak with Wynoma Foster recently about the session. Here’s how the conversation went:

PB: What is so important about the legislation you are trying to pass?

WF: This legislation is crucial to the protection of water resources for the Navajo people, especially here in the Eastern Agency. It is a powerful opportunity for our government to exercise its sovereignty in favor of protecting the resources of the people. Native peoples have endured a long history of exploitation at the hands of big business and the federal government. Now is our chance to voice our commitment to self-government in a clear and assertive way.

PB: What are the implications if this legislation doesn’t pass?

WF: If the members of the council cannot reach an agreement this session, the possibility for successfully passing the legislation are grim. There is a group of Alotees who are actively organizing to stop our effort. Also, Sen. Dominici very well might propose federal legislation in the next energy bill barring the Navajo Government’s ability to regulate uranium. This is why now is the time for our government to step up and protect its people and their resources.

PB: If your legislation does pass, what will that mean for Navajo people as well as other tribes?

WF: It will make it extremely difficult for outside entities to initiate mining in our area, even if its on private patchwork land. Any subsurface minerals will be included in the bill’s language and fall under Navajo Nation law. Also, the bill includes a provision for RECA applicants. This will give radiation victims much more leverage at the federal level when applying for compensation.

As far as other Native Peoples are concerned, the Navajos have a unique opportunity to set an example by enacting this legislation. Tribes across the country are facing threats of mining, illicit land use and unpaid royalties for minerals taken. We can set a precedent that will resonate across Indian country saying ‘Hey, you have the power and responsibility to protect your natural wealth. If we can do it so can you.’

Recently the Navajo Nation council decided to table this issue until their next session in the spring. It remains to be seen whether federal legislation will compete with Navajo sovereignty. The longer the tribe waits, the more difficult it is going to be to gain control over their land.

For more information and to find out what you can do to get involved, you can contact Gerald Brown at

Also, refer to the websites and for detailed information about current happenings.

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