Uranium Mining Danger to Water: A Piece by NMELC’s Executive Director

Jun 29, 2011

This piece was originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Saturday, June 25, 2011. It was written by Douglas Meiklejohn the Executive Director of Kindle grantee, New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Congratulations to The New Mexican for its June editorials supporting the 20-year moratorium on uranium mining at the Grand Canyon and to the Obama administration for considering the moratorium. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center also supports the moratorium and favors reforming the 1872 Mining Act that makes such mining possible.

The New Mexican‘s editorial raises a very important issue that has particular significance for people in New Mexico: protecting water from contamination from uranium mining. Uranium mining on the Grand Canyon’s rim is likely to result in the contamination of the Colorado River, which is a significant source of drinking water for major Western cities hundreds of miles downstream.

But here in New Mexico, a uranium mining company is proposing to conduct uranium mining within an aquifer that already supplies drinking water. This project would inject chemicals into the groundwater under Navajo communities, which would react chemically with the uranium ore bodies to allow for extraction. Although uranium ore currently exists in the drinking-water aquifer, under natural conditions it is immobile. Only after reacting with the mining chemicals does uranium contamination move throughout large portions of the aquifer.

This type of mining — called in situ leach or ISL mining — has a dismal environmental track record. In the 30-plus years that industry has used this mining technique, no commercial-scale operation has ever been able to restore a mined aquifer to its pre-mining condition. In other words, when an ISL operation is used to mine uranium, the aquifer in which the mining occurs will be contaminated with radiation and heavy metals forever.

If this project was proposed for a remote, unpopulated area with already poor groundwater quality, then the situation might be different. But the project is proposed for two Navajo communities — Crownpoint and Church Rock — where approximately 15,000 people get their drinking water from the aquifer that is proposed to be used for ISL mining.

Common sense dictates that no government should tolerate any project that would jeopardize drinking water supplies. But with this project, the government regulator is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an agency that is notoriously cozy with the industry it “regulates.” The chances that this mining will be resisted successfully by community and political opposition are compromised because the NRC often approves projects like these in low-income and minority communities that are politically disenfranchised. The impacts that unsafe ISL mining would have in Crownpoint and Church Rock are particularly harsh because these communities continue to suffer from the burden of pollution from Cold War-era uranium mines and mills.

The Grand Canyon deserves protection. Its natural wonder and cultural importance cannot be replaced. But the people and water resources of New Mexico deserve protection too. The federal government has made its choice — corporate profits outweigh public health. It is now up to New Mexicans to fight to protect our communities and resources. State and local governments must now find the will to say “no” to ill-conceived projects like this proposed ISL mining in order to protect the long-term economy, public health, and environment of our state and its residents.

Douglas Meiklejohn is the executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. He lives in Santa Fe.