New Mexico Environmental Law Center: Shelbie Knox on Uranium Mining in New Mexico

Dec 09, 2010
We are pleased to feature this article by Shelbie Knox of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. Shelbie shares an in depth look at the issues of uranium mining in New Mexico, its devastating effects on Navajo communities living near the mines, and the work of NMELC to protect regional land and waters.

Please read her article below and visit for more information.

by Shelbie Knox

The American uranium industry was born in the Four Corners region of the Southwest in the 1940s, and quickly grew fat off of America’s drive to lead the Atomic Age.  Before the mining boom ended, uranium from the Four Corners provided the federal government with the fissile energy for its nuclear arsenal; powered American cities; made mining executives fabulously wealthy; and gave the people in uranium mining communities cancer and birth defects.

Now, a new generation of men seeks to profit from uranium in the region.  Like their predecessors, they don’t seem to care what happens to the local communities or the environment.  But this time, they face knowledgeable residents who are dedicated to protecting their health and their neighborhoods from a new era of mining.

Students Against Uranium Mining (SAUM) members in front of the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, CO, 2008Two of those residents are Mitchell and Rita Capitan.  In 1994, after they learned of plans to build a new “in situ leach” uranium mine in the Crownpoint-Church Rock area (near Gallup, NM), they recruited their neighbors to form the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM).

In situ leach (ISL) mining represents a particular threat to the members of ENDAUM and their 15,000 neighbors, most of whom are Navajo.  Unlike conventional mining, in situ leach mining mobilizes uranium and other heavy metals into groundwater so that it can be pumped and extracted.  But after more than 30 years, no aquifer in which in situ leach mining has occurred has ever been reclaimed to pre-mining condition.  Despite this track record, the Hydro Resources, Inc. mining company proposes to mobilize uranium into the aquifer that provides the only source of drinking water for area residents – from minesites that would be as close as ¼ mile from the closest community wells.

Larry King, Board Member of ENDAUM

So what has ENDAUM done about this threat?  They have educated neighbors, lawmakers and the public about their plight.  With my organization, the non-profit New Mexico Environmental Law Center, and Chris Shuey at the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), they have been the first community ever to oppose a source materials license issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an ISL mine.  Together, we persuaded the State of New Mexico to reduce its uranium groundwater standard by more than tenfold, and won a ban on uranium mining in the Navajo Nation.

But is it enough?

As in most cases of environmental injustice, the deck is stacked against Mitchell, Rita, the other members of ENDAUM, and their neighbors.  In many American communities, it would be unthinkable to intentionally contaminate the drinking water aquifer with a toxic brew of radioactive and heavy metals.  It would be unimaginable to release more radiation into communities where air quality is already polluted by Cold War-era mining contamination that exceeds safe federal standards for levels of radioactivity.  But not in Navajo communities.

Bent on tapping into a new mining boom, companies such as Hydro Resources make promises that their technology can’t keep:  they will keep contamination out of wells, and clean up the aquifer they contaminate.  These promises have been made – and broken – by companies around the world over the past forty years.

Fortunately for these companies, they are regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), one of the most notoriously pro-industry agencies in the federal government, and an agency that invariably fails to scrutinize industry license applications.  Its Beltway-based staff has little understanding of the communities where uranium mining takes place:  in 1996, the NRC’s administrative judge on this case visited Crownpoint and called the area a “wasteland.” Ten years later, the Chairman of the NRC promised that his agency would not be a “bottleneck” to the growth of the nuclear industry, and recently the NRC relaxed its environmental review process for proposed uranium mines, in order to meet the growing demand for licenses.

Shelbie Knox

But the obstacles for ENDAUM do not end there.  In addition to corporate greed and the failure of bureaucrats to regulate for human welfare, the courts abide by a doctrine of “agency deference” in which they give significant weight to agency decisions.  This makes sense where agencies uphold their mandates to protect human health and welfare; it devastates communities where agencies support the industries they regulate.  Despite a scathing dissent at the appellate level, the courts have upheld the mining license.

But much remains to be done to prevent the drilling of the first well.  There are still citizens to rally, public officials to be lobby, permits to oppose, lawsuits to file.  ENDAUM, SRIC and the NMELC have fought this mine for more than a decade, and we are not about to stop now.  But the tragedy of this case, and with all cases of environmental injustice, is that the people of Crownpoint and Church Rock should not have to fight this fight.  Their foe has no conscience; their protectors have sold out.  But they fight on.

For more information on this issue, please see, and click on the Cases page.