hot to handle?
Rising uranium prices means jobs; but
some say the risk is too great
By Zsombor Peter, Gallup
CHURCH ROCK — From 1967 to 1982, the
United Nuclear Corporation mined several million tons
of uranium ore out of this 125-acre site where New Mexico
Highway 566 dead-ends 15 miles north of Church Rock.
Back then, the jobs were plentiful and
the pay was good, especially for a young Navajo just
out of high school. Larry King, who grew up and still
lives just miles south of the old mine, started out
as an underground surveyor for UNC in 1975 at $9 an
hour, chasing uranium drifts as they snaked through
the rock 1,600 feet below the surface.
"At the time it was good money,"
But when uranium prices began to tumble
in the wake of Three Mile Island, the mine shut down
and the jobs disappeared. Today, the few hollowed-out
office buildings still standing at the site are as empty
as the shed-off skin of some long departed reptile.
Weathered tiles crack underfoot. Decades-old technical
manuals litter the floors.
They're the only tangible reminders
of an industry that used to thrive here. But with shrinking
weapons stockpiles and new demand once again driving
uranium prices skyward, mining companies are returning
to this quiet corner of the state with new promises
of hundreds of jobs and millions in royalties. Some
locals want them back. Others, like King, who still
live with the radioactive fallout from the last boom
and don't believe another would prove any safer, say
they'll try to stop those companies "until there's
a cure for cancer."
Show me the money
Although not one company has yet
to mine a pound of uranium out of New Mexico soil this
century, many are making preparations. Few are further
along than Hydro Resources Inc., the local subsidiary
of a Texas company with four properties between Church
Rock and Crownpoint. It's already secured a crucial
license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
although opponents have tied it up in federal court.
Economically, HRI makes a tempting offer.
If and when production ever starts,
the company says each site will need nearly 100 workers
and pump $35 million into the community through payrolls
and the purchase of supplies and services.
Richard van Horn, HRI's vice president
of operations, said he could probably fill half, maybe
even three quarters, of those jobs locally. All he's
looking for is English proficiency, a high school diploma,
a strong work ethic, and a drug-free record.
"We don't need to go outside when
we have people here who need jobs," van Horn said.
He said salaries would range from $12
an hour to the low $20s and come with benefits, health
insurance and a 401-K, "the whole works, so these
aren't minimum wage-type jobs."
And those are just the employees. While
HRI bought three of its sites from other companies,
some 400 Navajo allottees hold claim to its 1,440-acre
Unit 1 site in Crownpoint. If it can recover 75 percent
of the 27 million pounds of uranium there, the company
says those allottees could collectively earn more than
$200 million over the lifetime of the mine.
The Navajo Nation could be in for a
big payday, too. At HRI's Section 17 site in Church
Rock, where it has surface rights, the tribe could make
more than $16 million off of royalties, according to
But all that's assuming a uranium spot
price of $100 per pound. After the price of a pound
of uranium crashed in early 1980s, it stayed low enough
to keep most mining companies out of the business for
the next two decades. It's only in the past three or
four years that it started to rebound. In early 2003,
a poundwas trading for less than $11. It's now trading
for just over $133.
Van Horn says he believes the market
is in for a correction but doesn't know when.
"If I knew that," he said,
"I would be buying uranium futures."
The price has already dipped a few dollars
since mid-June, for the first time in years. Given all
the volatility, what the allottees and tribe would really
end up earning is anyone's guess.
King's guess is that it won't be nearly
what HRI claims, and he questions the company's promise
of jobs, too. When HRI first started talking about the
jobs it would bring to the area, he said, it mentioned
300, "but as time went by ... they mentioned a
lower number. The last time they mentioned the number
of jobs they were going to create it was 60."
The company's royalty figures seem to
be changing as well. HRI provided The Independent with
that $16 million figure the Navajo Nation's take from
Section 17 a few weeks ago. In January, assuming the
same recovery rate, it said the tribe would earn $9
million from the site at a uranium-per-pound price of
$75. So if the price of uranium has gone up a third
since then, the tribe should be in for only $12 million
But it's all a moot point to the tribe,
which banned all mining and production of uranium on
Navajoland in 2005. HRI claims its sites all sit on
private land, beyond the tribe's jurisdiction, but a
recent ruling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
concluded otherwise. HRI is appealing.
Land of opportunity
Unit 1 is another matter. Unlike
its other sites, HRI leased it from Navajo allottees
whose descendants were granted private rights to the
land by the U.S. Interior Department in the 1800s.
With millions to be made, those allottees
want the tribe to get out of HRI's way.
"We have every right to have our
land developed, and we have people with no interest
trying to control us," said Ben House, president
of the Eastern Navajo Allottees Association.
An allottee himself, House gets $3,000
a month from HRI to help the company build local support.
For a man charged with changing the minds of some very
staunch opponents, he's low key. He picks his words
slowly and carefully.
"Joe Shirley can do whatever he
wants on the reservation," he said of the Navajo
Nation president, who signed off on the Tribal Council's
uranium ban, "but out here we treat our allotments
as private land.
"Back in 1868, people were given
this land to try and make a living, and that's what
we're trying to do."
But if the tribe won't listen to the
allottees, House said it should at least listen to its
out-of-work citizens. Unemployment across the reservation
has hovered stubbornly above 40 percent for decades.
"The Navajo Nation promotes education,
but they're not providing jobs," House said. "We
got people coming in to look for work ... especially
the young people. They're really hurting. They've got
bills and families."
He said people stop by HRI's Crownpoint
office asking about jobs every week, but he as nothing
to give them. Several buildings sit inside the company's
fenced-off compound. But with mining yet to start, it's
a quiet place.
HRI and its allottees aren't the only
ones who want to see that change. The McKinley County
Board of Commissioners passed a resolution in support
of the uranium industry's return last year. Commissioner
Earnest Becenti, who requested the resolution, said
the county needs jobs and more money for better roads.
"Thus far we've just been meeting
the emergency needs," he said, "but we need
to provide a better living standard for our people."
Becenti said he voted for the resolution
on the strength of a recommendation from the county's
advisory water board, which concluded that HRI's proposed
mining activities would pose no significant risk to
the county's water supplied. Larry Winn, who facilitated
the board's meetings on the subject, thinks its conclusion
may have been different if it had sought out some expert
testimony from opponents rather than settle for the
emotional rebuke it got from a handful of residents.
Still, Becenti stands by his decision.
"We need the jobs," he insisted.
A Texas tale
The residents of Kleberg County
in south Texas got that and more.
When Uranium Resources Inc., HRI's parent
company, started mining its Kingsville Dome site in
1988, said Richard Messbarger, executive director of
the Kingsville Economic Development Council, "they
hired every drilling rig they could find."
He said the company employed up to 200
people at any one time, "and they paid very well."
With the tax revenue the mining generated,
he added, the local school district built a new gym
But what they also got, according to
the county, was a breach of contract. When URI decided
in 2004 that it wanted to start mining a section of
the site called Area 3, it made a deal with the county
that any wells in Areas 1 and 2 that were suitable for
drinking, irrigation or stock watering before it started
mining them in the 1980s would be restored to premining
URI started mining Area 3 in January.
But according to the company's own data, one well, the
only one that tested usable, has yet to be restored.
As George Rice, a groundwater hydrologist
working for a local group trying to stop the mining,
put it, URI "basically said, 'Forget you, county.
We're going to go ahead mining, and if you don't like
it, that's too bad.'"
By February, the county passed a resolution
authorizing legal action if the parties failed to talk
the matter through. According to the county's attorney,
they're still talking.
URI insists it's breached nothing. Mark
Pelizza, the company's vice president for environmental
affairs, said it found some old data after 2004 indicating
that the well was never usable to begin with.
Unconvinced, some county residents have
banded together in hopes of kicking URI out. They call
themselves STOP, for South Texas Opposes Pollution.
They're worried that the elevated uranium levels at
the mine site could contaminate nearby wells that are
Pelizza says they have nothing to worry
about. Over the 30 years URI has been mining for uranium
with the method it's using at Kingsville, he said, "there
has never been a water well impacted."
But it's also true that no mining company
using the same method has ever restored the underground
water at a mine site to its original conditions. The
only way a company has ever managed to officially call
a site restored is by convincing the state or federal
government to lower its standards.
Teo Saens knew none of that when he
and his wife leased 40 acres to URI in the early 1990s.
"The words that were used were,
'We're going to take a batch of uranium and leave (the
water) crystal clear," cleaner even, Saens said,
The lease has since expired, and because
URI never mined his land, Saens earned only $100 a year
per acre. But he considers even that "blood money."
"It's little consolation for what
they're doing to the land," he said. "If we
knew what we know today, we wouldn't have leased."
Weighing the odds
Messbarger says most Kleberg County
residents appreciate URI's presence. He says its opponents
"They're a small cadre," he
said, numbering no more than 15 or 20 at any time.
In northwest New Mexico, the Eastern
Navajo Din Against Uranium Mining has been fighting
HRI for years.
President Mitchell Capitan used to have
high hopes for leaching mining, the method URI uses
in Texas and HRI wants to use in Church Rock and Crownpoint.
Instead of digging open pits or sending miners underground,
it involves injecting chemicals that loosen the uranium
from the rock so it can be pumped to the surface. As
a lab technician for Mobile Oil before HRI showed up,
he tried to show it could work. But what he discovered
he's never forgotten.
"The thing that really bothered
me was the end result of Mobile's demonstration, where
they couldn't restore the groundwater," he said.
Mobile ended up pulling out. Now, he
said, "(HRI) is saying that nothing will happen
... but I don't believe them."
What troubles opponents even more is
that HRI wants employ the method closer to active wells
than it's ever been tried before.
"So more or less," King said,
"HRI's going to experiment with us."
The company's license from the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission says it has to move the wells
before mining. But according to the NRC, the company
can always ask to have the license amended. And since
HRI tried convincing the NRC that the wells were not
a problem before, opponents believe it will try again.
House dismisses Capitan's objections
as ignorant scare tactics.
"The Navajo Nation should not be
held back by fear," he said. "If we're afraid
to make a move, we can't make any progress."
House wants the tribe to let the allottees
live off their land as they see fit.
"But it's not the land we're concerned
about," King said. "It's the aquiver, and
the aquifer doesn't know where your boundary line is."
Capitan summed up the choice these communities
face by holding up his two hands to the shoulder to
make a human scale. In one, he said, was all the wealth
a new uranium mining boom could bring. In the other,
he said, were all the risks to health and homeland.
Messbarger disagrees with the company's
opponents, but he understands why the issue inspires
so much controversy.
"In the Southwest, nothing scares
people more than concerns over the quality of their
water," he said.
"Water is precious," Capitan
said. "Water is life."