Texans: Say no to uranium mining
By Zsombor Peter
CHURCH ROCK â€” In the late 1980s, representatives of Uranium Resources Inc. came to the small Texas town of Kingsville with promises of jobs and royalties, and a pledge to leave their well water as clean as they found it.
Scores of landowners signed their acres over, and URI started mining in 1988. Some say the company has done everything it said it would. Others say it’s broken every pledge and promise it made.
Two decades on, URI representatives are making the same promises in Church Rock and Crownpoint. A small band of Texans paid a personal visit to the area last week to urge locals not to believe them.
“Don’t sign on, don’t lease,” said Fred Bell, a 1951 graduate of Gallup High School who now lives seven miles south of Kingsville. “They’ll get all they can out of you and then they’re gone.”
Bell and five other members of STOP South Texas Opposes Pollution, a grassroots group trying to bring URI’s Texas operations to an end traveled to Gallup on their own dime for three days of site visits, community meetings and radio spots. The damage done, they say their land will never be the same. But they hope their stories will save people here from “making the same mistake.”
Things have changed since the 1980s, said Richard van Horn, HRI’s vice president of operations. HRI’s license requires the company to prove it can restore a test mine site in Church Rock before mining in Crownpoint.
“If we can’t do it safely,” he said, “we won’t do it at all.”
The Texans aren’t convinced, though.
“We need to spread the message,” said Teo Saens, who now regrets the five-year lease he signed with URI in the 1990s. “You’re at the point where we were in’88. You have time to stop them.”
On a sunny Thursday morning, they had all gathered on Teddy Nez’s front lawn 15 miles north of Church Rock. A pair of long-abandoned uranium ore piles sit quietly a few hundred yards off in either direction, reminders of the mining boom that swept through the area before uranium prices plummeted in the early 1980s. Despite a recent $2.5 million cleanup by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, radium levels around Nez’s home remain dangerously high. They’ve rendered the cedar, sage and pion he used to treat his colon cancer, diagnosed 1 1/2 years ago, useless. A few miles to the south, URI’s New Mexico subsidiary, Hydro Resources Inc., wants to start mining again.
Tempted by the area’s prodigious uranium reserves, HRI began buying up land around Church Rock and Crownpoint in the 1980s. Despite a green light from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a decade of appeals from local opponents have kept HRI from mining them. Eager to win the locals over, the company talks of the hundreds of jobs the mines will create and the million in royalties it will earn for allottees. But above all else, it says their water will stay clean.
Saens has heard it all before.
“The promises have all been the same,” he said. “They’re going to take the uranium and leave (the water) crystal clear.”
But according to Saens and others, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Suelda Ortega, who also made the trip from Texas, said uranium levels in her three wells were just barely above government drinking standards before URI started mining her land. Now, she said, they’re 20 times above drinking standards. George Rice, a groundwater hydrologist working for STOP, says water in some parts of the mine site are 400 times above what they were before URI started.
Company officials say the rising levels have nothing to do with their mining, that the water is being contaminated by the natural release of uranium from the surrounding rock. But that uranium has been lodged to those rocks for centuries. The company’s opponents refuse to believe that so much of it would leave the rock on its own in two relatively short decades.
Kleberg County has even threatened to sue URI over an alleged breach of contract. In 2004, URI agreed to restore any clean wells in the two areas it already mined before starting to mine a third. It started mining the new site in January even though one well in the other two remains contaminated. The company says it’s found new data that proves the well was contaminated to begin with. Opponents find that suspiciously convenient.
As for jobs, the Kingsville Economic Development Council’s Richard Messbarger says URI hired every drilling rig it could find, employing up to 200 people at a time. But except for “a token few,” Saens said, the company hired most of them from outside the area.
Van Horn said he would probably be able to fill more than three quarters of the 400 or so jobs he’d need if mining ever starts up again here locally. But like STOP in Texas, ENDAUM the Eastern Navajo Din Against Uranium Mining is urging locals not to buy in.
“We have a lot of things in common with them,” ENDAUM President Mitchell Capitan said of his Texas counterparts.
ENDAUM’s appeals to the NRC and more recently the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have stymied HRI’s efforts but field to bring them to a halt.
It’s made even less progress with the 400 allottees sitting on HRI’s Unit 1 site just outside of Crownpoint. While HRI bought its other three sites in the area from private companies, it needs each of the allottees on Unit 1 to sign a lease.
Capitan had hopes that the Texans would have a chance to share their stories with those allottees before leaving. But during a Thursday afternoon luncheon organized for the group at Crownpoint’s St. Paul Parish Hall, he said, they ended up preaching to a roomful of converts. He’s glad at least that the group managed to snag a few hours of air time on KTNN and KYVA.
But it’s an uphill battle for ENDAUM.
Benjamin House, president of the Eastern Navajo Allottees Association, and a paid mining advocate for HRI, says most of the 400 allottees signed leases with the company in the early 1990s, although the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has yet to approve them.
Although Bell, Saens and the others left Saturday, Capitan said the two groups would continue to collaborate. ENDAUM, he said, was already planning an August trip to Kingsville to see URI’s Texas operations for itself.