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High court declines uranium review

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DENVER – The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to allow in situ leach uranium mining in Church Rock and Crownpoint communities in northwestern New Mexico, attorneys said.

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center, Santa Fe, N.M., which represented Navajo and other plaintiffs, said the high court’s ruling Nov. 15 came after litigation over a case that “marks the first time that a community has sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the issuance of an ISL uranium mining license.”

It is also the first time “that the NRC has issued a license for mining in a high-quality drinking water aquifer, despite the fact that no ISL mines have ever been reclaimed to pre-mining condition,” Eric Jantz, center attorney, said.

The 10th Circuit Court in March returned a decision upholding the NRC license that allows Hydro Resources Inc. to mine for uranium in an aquifer that serves as a community drinking water supply, and in May the federal appeals court issued a two-page ruling denying a request for an en banc (full court) rehearing of the case.

Members of the Navajo Nation, the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, the Southwest Research and Information Center, Albuquerque, N.M. and others have fought the uranium mining interests for more than two decades, fearing the ISL operation will contaminate the sole drinking water source for 15,000 Navajo area residents.

The in situ leach process injects water and chemicals into an underground aquifer, dissolves the uranium into the solution, and then pumps it out, collecting the ore before repeating the process.

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Opponents of the uranium mining contended that the NRC violated its own criteria for protecting drinking water for area residents. The Environmental Law Center noted that the Crow Butte mine in Nebraska was described in the past by the NRC as a model project, but it was fined $1 million in July 2008 for groundwater contamination.

The mining is in Indian communities adjoining Navajo Nation reservation lands where the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005 bans uranium mining outright because of potential economic detriment and environmental damage.

In an earlier 6-5 ruling by the full 10th Circuit, the minority noted the hydrology of the HRI tract is tied into the hydrology of the entire Church Rock Chapter east of Gallup, N.M., where three separate aquifers run directly beneath the tract and throughout the Chapter.

Fourteen wells from one of the aquifers – from which most chapter residents draw drinking water – are within 20 miles of the tract, and “any pollution into the aquifers would likely affect much of the Chapter population,” the court said.

Three dissenting judges of the 10th Circuit noted “the externalities produced by a mining operation – including pollution, traffic, and the aesthetic harms by having a large mining operation nearby – also affect the surrounding community.” They pointed out that “the largest nuclear spill in U.S. history” near Church Rock in 1979 caused extensive damage and contamination.

HRI’s parent company, Uranium Resources Inc., noted in a recent press release that it has 183,000 acres of uranium mineral holdings and 101.4 million pounds of in-place mineralized uranium material in New Mexico and a NRC license to produce up to 1 million pounds of uranium per year.