As uranium prices soar and companies seek to reopen mines, tribe members point to the detrimental health effects of past exposure.
AMBROSIA LAKE, N.M.
Twenty years after uranium mining ceased in New Mexico amid plummeting prices for the ore, global warming and the soaring cost of oil are renewing interest in nuclear power -- and in the state's uranium belt.
At least five companies are seeking state permits to mine the uranium reserves, estimated at 500 million pounds or more, and Uranium Resources Inc. (URI), a Texas-based company, wants to reopen a uranium mill in Ambrosia Lake.
Industry officials say a uranium boom could mean thousands of jobs and billions in mineral royalties and taxes for the state.
But the deposits are largely in and around Navajo land, and the industry's poor record on health and safety as it extracted tons of the ore in past decades has soured many Navajos on uranium mining. In 2005, the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining and milling on its land, and thousands of tribe members are receiving or seeking federal compensation for the health effects of past uranium exposure.
Like many Navajos who worked in the mines, Larry King didn't know then that there was anything dangerous about it. "We had no respirators; you'd have sweat running down your face with the uranium dust getting in your ears, nose and mouth," said King, who surveyed mine tunnels from 1975 to 1982. "You couldn't help but swallow it."
During mining's peak, from the early 1950s to the early 1980s, about 400 million pounds of uranium were extracted from the region. At the end of the boom, around 1984, the price of uranium languished below $10 a pound. Mines were shut down, and the United States began importing nearly all of its uranium, with the bulk coming now from Canada, Russia and Australia. But by last summer, the price had rebounded to a record high of $136 a pound.
Though the mines created numerous jobs and substantial royalties for the Navajo and Laguna tribes, the decades of extraction took a heavy toll: lung cancer, kidney disease, birth defects and other ailments at notably high levels among miners and families who lived among piles of uranium tailings -- the ground-up waste from milling -- and even used the material to build their homes.
All but one of the major companies now seeking to mine in New Mexico are newcomers to the state and have promised to do a better job than their predecessors. In addition, pending state legislation would require them to deposit a small percentage of their profits in a "legacy fund" to clean up existing uranium contamination.
But King said, "I don't believe them one bit."
He blames his recent health problems on uranium. He remembers July 16, 1979, when more than 90 million gallons of uranium-contaminated water burst through the dam of a tailings holding pond and into the Puerco River running by his land. And he remembers seeing his cattle drop dead from, he thinks, drinking polluted mine runoff.
Another former uranium miner, Milton Head, 69, describes similar effects on people and livestock.
"Stubby Simpson was a picture of health, didn't smoke or drink, then he got lung cancer and lasted six months," Head said of another former miner. "Steers would turn yellow, their horns and hooves would slough off, like they were just drying up."
Head, who is not Navajo, is all for uranium as a fuel source but does not trust the federal government to regulate the industry. He lives a few blocks from a former uranium mill, which is now a Superfund site.
Teddy Nez, a Navajo, lives near a 40-foot-tall pile of uranium tailings. Little ground vegetation grows in the parched climate.
"You're breathing uranium right now," Nez said as dust swirled through the air.
There are more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and several mill sites in the region, according to the Southwest Research and Information Center, a nonprofit public interest group that focuses on energy development and natural resources. Chris Shuey, director of the group's Uranium Impact Assessment Program, says three-quarters of the sites have not been cleaned up.
None of URI's holdings is on the Navajo reservation, though there is some intersection with Navajo private allotted lands. Jurisdiction in the area is a complicated web of mineral and water rights underlying a checkerboard of tribal and nontribal holdings.
URI chief operating officer Richard Van Horn said the Navajo tribe's uranium mining ban could limit the company's plans but would not stop mining in the region.
Along with conventional mining, in which uranium-laden ore is taken out of the ground and milled, URI plans to use a process called in situ recovery mining. The ore is left in the ground, and oxygenated water is injected into uranium-laden aquifers to essentially bond to the mineral and pump it to the surface.
While the process causes much less waste and surface disruption, opponents worry that it will contaminate the water supply since it involves mobilizing uranium within the aquifer.
URI's New Mexico operations director, Randy Foote, counters that the area's water is already not potable and that the company would be required to return the aquifer to its baseline state before ending operations.
"Uranium is actually relatively benign," Foote said. "All the wells out here have small amounts of uranium in them."