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Finding Allies in the Uranium Fight: South Texas Opposes Pollution (s.t.o.p.)

Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) welcomed friends from South Texas Opposes Pollution (S.T.O.P.) to Navajo Country on July 18, 2007. We share a common goal — stopping new uranium mining in our communities.

S.T.O.P. is based in Kingsville in Kleberg County, Texas, within 50 miles of the Gulf of Mexico. Like ENDAUM and residents of northwestern New Mexico, S.T.O.P. members have experienced the impacts of uranium mining while trying to thwart new mining proposals. Specifically, S.T.O.P. is working to stop expansion of Uranium Resources, Inc.’s (URI) Kingsville Dome in situ leach (ISL) uranium mine, and currently has a lawsuit pending against the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality for not requiring URI to clean up areas mined. Mining by URI is occurring about five miles outside of Ricardo and eight miles southeast of Kingsville. ENDAUM is working to stop URI’s subsidiary, Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI), in its ongoing plans to build four uranium ISL mines in and near Crownpoint and Churchrock, New Mexico.

Six S.T.O.P. members (Julia and Fred Bell, Annie and Teo Saenz, and Subelda and Carlos Ortegon) came to the Navajo Nation with one clear message: Do not trust the uranium companies, they will say and do anything to get their way and then they will forget about you once the mining is done. ENDAUM is at the same point with HRI that S.T.O.P was in 1988 with URI. Because of this, S.T.O.P. members took time from their personal lives to spend almost a week driving to New Mexico to warn us not to make the same mistakes that they made. S.T.O.P member Teo Saenz said that URI and HRI cannot and will not clean up the groundwater, because the technology does not exist today to restore the water to its premining condition, and no uranium company anywhere has been able to restore the water to the same condition that it was before. They told stories of the company making promises of wealth and job development in order to get renewed leases from local landowners. Members of S.T.O.P. have close ties to each other, some of which are family-related. They said the company’s practices went to the heart of blood relationships, causing families to turn against each another. Some family members still support the mining, and this has caused a split amongst kin and distrust of some of their own.

In Navajo Indian Country, HRI’s practices have had similar effects. Some Diné families living in the checkerboard area near Crownpoint signed leases with the company in the late-1980s and early-1990s, in opposition of immediate family members who saw past the temporary economic benefit of mining, and feared the dangers of this type of industry the community’s share water supply. At one time HRI employed the uncle of the several of the leaders of ENDAUM, causing friction within the family. In another instance, a family had ostracized their daughter for years because she was adamantly opposed to all uranium operations, in any capacity. The family had signed a lease, but later realized that their daughter was keeping the health of the community (and future generations) in mind. The family has since reunited and is now looking for ways to get the company’s lease rescinded.

S.T.O.P. and ENDAUM participated in a radio show on KTNN—the voice of the Navajo Nation, AM 660. ENDAUM founder Mitchell Capitan spoke about ENDAUM’s history, the current state of the new ISL mining proposals, and possible expansion of reclaimed mines. The S.T.O.P. members introduced themselves and gave an overview of their situation in South Texas, which mirrored ours in the Four Corners region. ENDAUM board members and Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) staff translated the entire broadcast into Navajo for our listeners who primarily speak their native language—usually elders who reside in remote locations of the reservation. S.T.O.P. members said that the mouth was a better weapon and urged the Navajo nation to stand together in unity and to spread the word, one person at a time, that uranium mining will not be tolerated and that it is not good.

Although S.T.O.P. and others have challenged the permits, made public commentary, requested additional hearings, rallied their community, and done virtually everything in their capacity to thwart URI, the Kingsville Dome Mine continues to impact Kleberg County. URI’s operations are well advanced there. S.T.O.P. members, based on their experiences, urged listeners to halt HRI before they start in New Mexico. Specifically, they wanted to speak directly to individuals who own allotments (lands granted to Native American families by federal law), and supporters of HRI, to educate them on the reality of this mining—that there is no “safe” uranium production. The message was very clear, DON’T LEASE.

S.T.O.P. members also went on a site tour of Churchrock and Crownpoint. In Churchrock, they met Scotty Begay, a former uranium worker for United Nuclear Corporation (UNC), at the Old Churchrock Mine, which UNC operated between 1977 and 1982 and sold to HRI in 1992. Much of the mining equipment was removed years ago, but the site still has five mine wastewater ponds and a building that housed an ion-exchange unit that was used to treat mine water. Ground surveys conducted by the Churchrock Uranium Monitoring Project, the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency (NNEPA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) in 2003 revealed gamma radiation levels up to 16 times greater than levels considered normal for the area on both sides of the highway next to the site and on nearby Navajo grazing lands.

Begay, a former UNC mill worker who also participated in closure of the Old Churchrock Mine site, told us that UNC took “shortcuts” when shutting down its operations during the 1980s and early 1990s. At the mine site, he stated that he was instructed to hide evidence on the surface by cutting anything protruding from the earth to ground level. He also was instructed to bury contaminated waste left by the company. He said the bottom of a tank containing resin beads used in the ion-exchange treatment broke, releasing the uranium-contaminated beds to the ground next to the mine. He said he helped a company official shovel the spilled beads into the back of a pickup truck while other workers took pictures – photos he still has to this day.

UNC “sold” the Old Churchrock Mine to HRI in the early 1990s, and HRI has obtained a federal license to build and operate an ISL mine at this same site. ENDAUM and SRIC have challenged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) issuance of that license, asserting among many things that the Commission’s decision declaring the contaminated waste at the mine “background” violated federal law. Our lawsuit against NRC is now pending in the United States Court of Appeals in Denver.

Up the road at the now-closed UNC uranium mill, Begay told us of areas where used tires from heavy equipment used to transport the uranium ore and other wastes were buried. He also showed us a huge mound that looks like a hill but is really a tailings pile of waste covered with dirt and rock. We were joined by local resident Teddy Nez, who showed us where the dam at the UNC tailings facility broke in 1979, releasing nearly 100 million gallons of radioactive and acidic wastewater to the Puerco River. This one disaster remains the largest single release of radioactive wastes, by volume, in U.S. history.

The S.T.O.P. group then went to Teddy Nez’s residence that sits between two abandoned mines. He showed us where he and his family practice their traditions on land where his wife’s family has lived for seven generations. And he showed how close the two abandoned mines are to his and several other homes in the area, called Red Water Pond Road.

Nez produced an April 6, 2007 letter he received from the USEPA Region 9 Superfund office that told him the agency would have to clean up contaminated soils in a area 500-feet long next to six homes. He said the agency and its contractors moved into the neighborhood in early May and dug up only 6 to 12 inches of soil within 65 feet of his residence. He said they did not remove contaminated soils covered by vegetation, claiming the plants (like sage brush) will contain the soil beneath a natural barrier. Nez said he feels the soil removal was not enough. “They should have gone deeper and removed the total 500 feet. It just exposed what was beneath the surface to start blowing around again.” Now, the families of Red Water Pond Road do not use the sage outside their house for prayer, or the wood from the local trees, because the plants may be contaminated.

During the soil cleanup in May and June, USEPA paid to house Nez’s family and three other families in hotels in Gallup while the agency tested their homes for radioactive radon gas and replaced the polluted ground with clean top soil. He called this modern day “relocation.” And he told S.T.O.P. visitors that this is his home and the families will not leave: “The miners and workers come and go. We live with it.”

An NNEPA representative confirmed that USEPA issued a Superfund enforcement order to clean up the abandoned UNC Northeast Church Rock Mine next to Nez’s home, and that USEPA is working with UNC to accomplish this. The contaminated topsoil that was excavated from around the residents’ homes was trucked to the adjacent mine site, and stored in a pile covered by a large plastic tarp, Nez and other residents had observed that the covering had ripped open under the force of the summer winds, and that dust was seen blowing from the pile back toward the community. The company had the pile trucked away to a remote disposal site in August and September. But Nez reminded us that a USEPA official told him and his neighbors in April that it’s possible that the government will have to “do the job again” if cleanup of the mine site next to the homes recontaminates the new topsoil.

In Crownpoint, S.T.O.P. members were briefed by ENDAUM founders Mitchell and Rita Capitan and member Larry J. King on a hill next to HRI’s proposed uranium processing plant located at the edge of town within a mile of most of the community’s 3,000 residents. The delegation then made a brief appearance at the Women’s Conference being held at the Crownpoint Chapter House. S.T.O.P. representatives spoke directly with community members after the conference ended, finding many to be supporters of our efforts to stop new uranium mining.

On the last day of S.T.O.P.’s visit, ENDAUM Board Member Larry King and Lead Organizer Leona Morgan went with S.T.O.P. members to participate in a recorded interview with Millenium Media’s News Director John McBreen. Millenium Media is the owner of four major radio stations in the Gallup and Grants areas. S.T.O.P. members Fred Bell (former Gallup resident) and Teo Saenz explained the actions S.T.O.P. took in response to URI’s activities at the Kingsville Dome Mine.

In 1997, S.T.O.P. requested a hearing on Production Area 3 (PA3) with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state agency which provides permits for uranium mining. Initially, the request was denied by the TCEQ Commissioners, however, a state district judge ordered the TCEQ to hold a hearing. That hearing was not held until 2005 due to the low price of uranium. At the end of the year-long hearing, the state administrative hearing judge ordered URI to completely restore PA1 and substantially restore PA2 before mining in PA3. That decision was overturned by TCEQ commissioners and URI started mining in PA3 in February 2007.

In 1997, the Kleberg County Commissioner's Court had joined with S.T.O.P. in requesting a hearing on PA3. In 2004, however, a new county judge had been elected and the county reached a settlement with URI. On January 30, 2007, the county said that URI had failed to live up to the promises it had made in the contract to restore the groundwater in PA1 and PA2, and threatened to sue. URI faxed a letter later that day that it would immediately start mining in PA3, which it did.

In spite of several attempts, according to a 2006 study by hydrologist George Rice, URI has not been able to restore the groundwater in PA1 and PA2, and the groundwater and surface remain highly contaminated. URI has reported numerous spills of radioactive mining solutions. (Some of these spills at its Kingsville Mine are summarized on World Information Service on Energy (WISE) Uranium Project web site, www.wise-uranium.org/umopusa.html#KINGSV.) What URI has done is offer money for research at Texas A&M University at Kingsville and award grants to local organizations, including the local Economic Development agency. It also frequently runs half-page color ads in the local newspaper; in these ads, URI claims that it is restoring the groundwater to the baseline, although not exactly to baseline.

Residents and landowners of the Garcia Hill area near Ricardo showed us water data tests taken from their drinking water wells in 1988. These tests showed uranium levels of .05 and .08 mg/l. Uranium levels taken from samples on September 17, 2004 increased to .170 mg/l, an increase of about 25 times what it was before in 1988. It is also 25 times the current drinking water standards. Residents of Garcia Hill got a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on October 18, 2004 advising them to not drink the water from these two wells. The S.T.O.P. visitors said that they have been subject to what they call intimidation and deceit by URI, and that their legitimate concerns about impacts of the facility on water quality and property values are not being heard widely. They have taken it upon themselves to travel outside of Texas to reach out to other communities being threatened by URI and it’s subsidiaries.

The radio recording was our last encounter with the S.T.O.P. group. We discussed future collaborations and the possibility of an ENDAUM visit to South Texas before they said their final good-byes.

The S.T.O.P. group shared their experiences and gave us insight on how the uranium companies operate, from a non-Native, non-New Mexican point of view. We shared stories of our history and struggles (not just as ENDAUM, but as Diné people). Because of this experience, we saw that we are allies in the same fight — for our families, our communities, our culture and traditions, our water, and the generations who will follow.

– Article and photos by Leona Morgan

Special thanks to Chris Shuey, Teo Saenz,
and Elizabeth Cumberland for
their assistance with this article


Teo Saenz: esaenz@the-i.net
Elizabeth Cumberland: ECUMBERLAND@peoplepc.com

(505) 786-5209

Uranium Resources, Inc.

Leona Morgan, is Diné from the Navajo Nation. Her clans are Todach’inii, born for Tsenahabilnii; her maternal grandfather was Kiyaa’aanii, and her paternal grandfather was To’aheedliinii. She is a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Her family is from the Crownpoint area, and some have been terminally affected by lung cancer. She was trained by and has experience in grassroots organizing with Albuquerque-based Sacred Alliances for Grassroots Equality (SAGE) Council. She can be reached via email at leona.morgan@yahoo.com.

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