RED ROCK, N.M. - Navajos fighting proposed uranium mining in an area once devastated by a radioactive spill, were bolstered by scientists who criticized the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approving new uranium mining that could result in the contamination of drinking water for 15,000 Navajos and ultimately lead to kidney failure.
"I've never seen such poor science, poor accountability and poor traceability," said Mike Wallace, a groundwater hydrologist who has worked in the nuclear industry at WIPP in New Mexico and the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.
Speaking to Navajos gathered at Red Rock State Park, Wallace said the final environmental impact statement for the uranium mining proposed by Hydro Resources, Inc., for Crownpoint and Church Rock, is flawed.
Referring to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's approval of a license, now being challenged by interveners, Wallace said, "They are not taking this area or these people's concerns seriously."
Mitchell Capitan, Navajo cofounder of the grassroots group Eastern Navajo Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) told the gathering, "They think in-situ mining will be done easily without contamination or accidents, but that is not the case."
Speaking in Din? and English, Capitan said, "There's always going to be accidents. Our water is more sacred and our water is clean; they want to dirty the water in our communities."
Richard Abitz, geo-chemist and environmental scientist, urged Navajos to stop the legacy of uranium mining now. "There is a gross misrepresentation of the geological structure in the final environmental impact statement."
Abitz joined Wallace in questioning why the proposed uranium mining is still being considered. "We are trying to figure out why it is done differently here than in the rest of the world."
Norman Patrick Brown, Navajo and spokesperson for a coalition of grassroots groups Din? Bidziil, said it is obvious why HRI is being allowed to proceed with the plan. "Navajos are considered expendable," Brown said.
Wallace added that politics are at work. "There might be a lot of political pressure from the uranium industry."
Capitan and his wife Rita Capitan founded ENDAUM 10 years ago. Since that time, the grassroots Navajo group has had to raise nearly $1 million to fight HRI in court. The grassroots Navajo group Concerned Citizens of T'iistsooz-Nideeshgizh joined ENDAUM's effort in 2001.
Capitan told the gathering that HRI was invited to the meeting to debate the proposed mining, but declined the invitation and said they would not attend. "They were told one month in advance and invited to make a presentation," Capitan said.
HRI of Rio Rancho proposes to mine in four areas near Crownpoint and Church Rock. The uranium would be removed by in-situ leach (ISL) mining, a process of injecting chemicals into the ground that would strip the uranium from the host rock of sandstone in the aquifer.
Wallace said when he saw the proposal data, he believed that there was no way it would be approved, based on the scientific fact that there are water channels in the rock which could carry the toxic radioactive slush into Navajo drinking wells. "This is a no-brainer," Wallace told himself. "There is no way they are going to permit a mine here."
Wallace said HRI's model is flawed and is not credible. HRI claims the water is homogenous in the area, but it is not and instead flows through channels. The chemicals act like a paint stripper and strip the uranium deposits off the rock. The uranium-contaminated groundwater is then pumped to the surface for processing.
Wallace predicted that nearby drinking wells of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and BIA will be contaminated. "In five years time, the uranium contaminated water would reach the NTUA well. In 10 years, it would reach the BIA well.
"It is enough to cause renal damage.
"These wells are the sole source of drinking water for thousands of people that live in the area."
Abitz said in-situ leaching uses a hydrogen peroxide mixture to strip the uranium from the rock, which kills tissue and destroys cells in human and animal life. The addition of oxygen and sodium bicarbonate called oxygenates causes uranium and other radioactive substances and trace metals to be liberated from the rock into the groundwater.
Further, he warned that it would be HRI who would be responsible for monitoring the wells and taking action if there is an accident, spill or emergency. Urging a halt to the proposal, Abitz said, "Water is needed for life, uranium is not needed for life. We can get by without uranium, we can not get by without water."
Abitz said judges have too often taken the stance that they are judges who know nothing of the mining industry and accept the data of corporations, claiming the corporations are in the know.
"It is a fallacy," said Abitz, who manages restoration of uranium-contaminated groundwater at the government's Fernald uranium plant near Cincinnati, Ohio.
Abitz said the water taken from the extremely pristine Westwater Canyon Aquifer near Crownpoint for uranium mining and used for flushing out chemicals would not be replaced in our lifetimes. Currently, the pristine water meets the high standard of the World Health Organization. The clean water standard is 0.002 mg of uranium contamination per liter.
Abitz pointed out that when the toxic chemicals of mining are injected into the groundwater, the amount of uranium contamination "goes through the roof." Further, the chemicals injected create a "toxic soup" which destroys the natural balance. "Once it is in there, the damage is done.
"It takes hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, to transform aquifer water back into a drinkable condition. Abitz agreed with Wallace that there is no doubt that the contamination will reach Navajo water supplies. "It will make its way into the Crownpoint water supply."
Abitz said in-situ leach mining has been done in Texas and Wyoming, away from drinking water sources. But in those areas, regardless of the millions of dollars and years of efforts, the water has never been restored. "They have not been able to do it."
Abitz said if the mining is not halted, a sad chapter would play out again for Navajos, with the mining company leaving and possibly declaring bankruptcy as others have done to prevent paying for damages. "They won't be able to restore the groundwater. They'll take a shot at it, they'll say they've pumped so much water through it; and then they'll say see you later."
Abitz used black dye, a sponge and clean water to demonstrate how poisons remain in the water, regardless of clean water being poured or flushed through nine times.
"You would not see the chemicals in there, but they would be poisoning you. The toxic chemicals will not go away.
Abitz said the number of Navajos already suffering from diabetes, which also affects kidney functions, compounds the risk of renal failure. "Uranium is toxic to the kidneys, it slows down kidney function."
Din? translators Capitan, Esther Yazzie and Lillie Lane translated complex science into the Din? language during the gathering, which included a lunch of posole, mutton stew, spring greens, fry bread and brownies. What was not on the menu was anyone who could make excuses for the government sending Navajo miners to their death as they mined uranium without protective clothing during the Cold War or for the deadly radioactive spill in nearby Church Rock.
On July 16, 1979, the uranium tailings dam failure at the United Nuclear Corporation uranium mill released 94 million gallons of acidic wastewater and 1,100 tons of radioactive tailing into the North Fork of the Puerco River. It has since flowed downstream through Navajo communities, including Nahata Dziil (New Lands), where Navajos were relocated from Black Mesa to make way for Peabody Coal's mining operations.
Wallace said what is going on with HRI's approval should be questioned.
Earlier, world-respected water hydrologist Shlomo Neuman said in 1998 that the data in the final environmental impact statement is flawed. After that, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a statement, which claimed Neuman had changed his mind. However, Neuman again spoke up and wrote a statement saying that he has not changed his mind and confirmed the data is flawed.
Wallace said of the attempt to distort Neuman's words, "There are very suspicious things going on here."
Mitchell Capitan said when ENDAUM formed 10 years ago, Navajos had no idea they would be fighting HRI for a decade.
"We don't want that uranium mining polluting our clean water, our clean air."