MAC: Mines and Communities

An interview with local ex-mining employee Larry King

Published by MAC on 2005-02-24

An interview with local ex-mining employee Larry King

By Patrick Barnett

PB: How did you first get involved with the issue of uranium mining?

LK: Back in October of 1975 I started working for UNC, five miles north of Church Rock. Just a few hundred feet was the reservation boundary. I remember very well that when we were hired, there were no warnings given to us what so ever of the dangers of uranium. They just said, 'You're hired, go in.' I worked there for 6 and a half years without any warning. All of a sudden one day in April they made an announcement that the mine was going to shut down. Within a few days there was a massive lay off. I used to work underground as a mine surveyor, so when they started closing the mine they transferred me to the milling operation as a water monitor. At that time I still didn't know why they had us do monitoring. As time passed I acquired more knowledge and found out that we were checking up on the plume that was discharging into the ground from the holding ponds on the surface. I never asked about the dangers of this because I needed a job. If I started poking around who knows? I lasted another year before I got laid off in April of 93.

Back when my father passed away was right around the time that articles appeared about new mining proposals in Crownpoint. ENDAUM had contacted me about their work and what they were trying to do. I realized that I had the responsibility to take care of the land my father had worked to give his family. Not only that, but I used to work in Crownpoint and had many friends in that area. I knew that many people got their water from the pristine aquifer in the area. By that time I had learned a thing or two about uranium's toxicity, so when HRI made their announcement I couldn't believe it. They said they were going to inject a solution into our drinking water to extract the uranium below. On top of that they had the gall to say the aquifer wouldn't be contaminated, that the wells would suck all the toxic soup back up and out of harms way. It's a no-brainer. It's not going to work. If you drink coffee with cream, it's impossible to take the cream out once its dissolved.

PB: Do you know if UNC ever suffered any fines from their polluting activities?

LK: I'm not sure. I remember the huge spill that took place in '79. I had to be at work at five in the morning, but I guess I didn't notice anything strange that day. Later on some workers asked if I noticed the hole in the damn, and that's when I found out about the spill. The spill ended up flooding right past my grazing area and then on down to Gallup. Later on I was out near my pasture with an expert who was doing air testing. He had a Geiger counter and man, the arrow shot straight to the extreme exposure side. I don't know of any damages they paid, and the site of the spill is still leaking toxins into the groundwater.

PB Surely people must know about the dangers of uranium mining. What would make people ignore the dangers in favor of new mining?

LK: People should know better than allowing new mining in the area, considering the history of ill effects that many have suffered. People in power should especially know better. I know that our current country commissioner, Earnest Becenti Jr., is in favor of new mining. His father, Earnest Becenti Sr., is a respected medicine man of the Navajo people. Surely he should know about the dangers associated with mining, especially ISL mining. Traditional medicine men know about the old stories, and one of them is about uranium. They say that uranium is mother earth's poison. If you disturb this substance than negative side effects will result. Look what's happened in the four corners with all the cancer victims coming from there. Mr. Becenti should know better. There was also a previous chapter president, Sherman Woodie, who supports new mining, and he is a medicine man now as well. I just don't understand how these people can take these positions when they're supposed to care about the health of the people. These people have lived in the area for a long time. I just can't understand it their reasoning.

PB: Do you think it has something to with the purported economic incentives?

LK: Companies like HRI know how to maneuver around legislation and accomplish their mining objectives. One of the big things that proponents of new mining claim is that it will bring all kinds of new jobs to our impoverished area. That simply cannot be trusted. My father had signed a right of way to UNC so they could use part of our grazing land for transport purposes. In exchange, they were supposed to build a power line to supply power to our property. Ten years later they still hadn't followed through with their promise. It wasn't until after the mine left that we finally were able to establish a line. That's when I stopped believing what these mining companies say.

This new company, HRI, which is an offspring of UNC, says they're going to bring in hundreds of jobs for local people. That's where chapter officials got the idea about mining being a good thing. That's when we stepped in and started educating people. I read an article recently in which the job number claimed by HRI went down to a couple hundred. What happened to all those hundreds of jobs? I can tell you right now, non-Navajo technicians and engineers will fill the great majority of jobs they will bring. Just like the company putting in the natural gas pipeline down highway 566, most of the workers are non-native.

PB: Is HRI actively lobbying the Church Rock and other area governments?

LK: From what I understand, HRI has contacted and conducted meetings with Earnest Becenti Jr. Now he is backing HRI's move to start new mining. Whenever HRI doesn't get their way at the chapter level, they go running to other people who might offer them other possibilities, even though at the chapter level in both Church Rock and Crownpoint, we have a resolution in place that was elected by the people opposing ISL mining. The county officials aren't the ones who will be directly affected by new mining. They have mountains and hillsides in between them and the mine sites. We don't have that luxury. Apparently they believe that what's out of sight is out of mind, especially when its under the ground. However, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority also opposes the mine. Their wells will be directly affected, which by the way don't even need treatment before supplying water directly to homes.

HRI has also taken certain officials from the Church Rock chapter, namely in the land use committee, to Albuquerque and taken them out to dinner, put them up in hotels. Now they are backing HRI's mining proposals. Go figure.

PB: Even if there existed a 5% chance that our environment would be contaminated, do you think most people would agree to take that chance in favor of economic development?

LK: We have gone around educating people in our area of the Navajo Nation as to the eminent dangers of uranium mining. Many people have relatives who've suffered from past job experiences and know about four corners stories. Unfortunately, the dollar often speaks louder than the voice of reason. Many people are desperate for jobs and would make sacrifices. Because I am a respected member of the community and work for the Indian Health Service as a project manager, more people have come to trust the message we are bringing.

PB: What is your current role in the fight against uranium mining?

LK: Right now I'm on the board of ENDAUM. We are working to pass legislation that will effectively block uranium mining on or near Navajo lands.

PB: What's your opinion on why uranium hasn't been banned yet by the tribe, considering its history of damaging local land and its people?

LK: Well, I often here a lot of rhetoric coming from Window Rock about how we're a sovereign nation and we stand for the best interests of our people. OK, this is the chance for them to demonstrate that assertion, yet they remain reluctant. There's a consultant who works for HRI by the name of Benny House. He spends an awful lot of time up there in Window Rock talking to the delegates and putting ideas in their minds. I'm not sure exactly what he's saying. One of the delegates (Earnest Yazzie) lives only a few hundred feet from the proposed mine, yet his opinion has been totally changed by the consultant to be in favor of mining. Its pretty sad when local representatives listen to outside companies before local people who will be directly affected. Our effort to pass anti-uranium legislation in the latest special session was tabled, in part by this delegates' vote. Another problem is the Navajo alotees, who have believed what HRI has said and want to bring in the mine. These people are by and large elderly Navajos who don't really understand the problems that mining will cause. Just like my father, they want to bring economic development by any means possible. Its up to the younger Navajo generation, who understands the science behind ISL mining, to protect their people.

PB: If HRI is allowed to mine, what will be the effects toward the Navajo people?

LK: The pristine water that 15,000 people use on a daily basis will be polluted, despite the claims of safety made by HRI. I can tell you right now that when an aquifer was polluted in Texas by ISL mining, instead of attempting to clean it up, which by the way no company has been able to do, UNC lobbied to have the laws changed. Now that state's standards are much higher than what is acceptable for human consumption. That's the way these companies are able to manipulate people and their governements. I don't care how many jobs HRI promises, my people's water and the water of future generations isn't worth it.

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