Reflections from Chris Shuey of the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC).
SRIC was aware that Uranium Resources, Inc. had filed an application for a “radioactive source materials license” with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and a groundwater discharge plan with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) as far back as 1987 because two executives brought applications to SRIC, thinking we would be impressed with their proposal.
In October of 1994, there was a large article in Gallup Independent about the project, with notes that the NRC was proposing to approve project. At that time, we paid notice to that article, and got a copy of the NRC document. In January 1995, while attending a meeting in Mariano Lake Chapter, and I was told that there was a guy who wanted to meet me…it turned out that it was Mitchell Capitan taking his lunch break.
Mitchell had wanted to make contact and see if SRIC could meet with a new group that ended up calling itself ENDAUM – the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining. SRIC helped them file a petition for leave to intervene in NRC licensing “Crownpoint Uranium in solution mining project”.
I had known [Washington D.C.-based attorney] Diane Curran through her work on uranium and mining. We got some free help from her about how to put together pleadings and perfunctory affidavits. By April 1995, the collection of documents compiled by ENDAUM and SRIC served as the initial pleadings for the case.
Soon thereafter, the Law Center graciously presented me with the Karl Souder Water Protection Award. During that time, I had been talking to Doug about what was going on in Crownpoint.
Fast forward a year, and ENDAUM asked for the Law Center’s representation, which was granted. Susan Jordan was the first lawyer to work on case with ENDAUM and SRIC. Everything from the Spring of 1995 was redone in better legal format by Susan and Diane, and filed in August, 1997.
Before the licensing board judges could act on petitions to intervene, NRC issued the license to URI in January 1998. We went from challenging a proposed license to a license, which changed the rules of the game in the middle of the game.
Our work allowed us to become more engaged with the Navajo tribal government. We already had good relations with the communities and chapters, but the Tribal government did not participate during the NRC process. As the case proceeded, we were able to attract the attention of the Navajo Nation to the jurisdictional issues – it took action from the standpoint of the fact that operations were next to tribal lands in Indian County, and whether or not the Tribe or NMED had jurisdiction over water resources. Also worked with lots of groups on Navajo Nation to adopt a ban. With the help of a lot of groups on Navajo Nation and NMELC attorney Eric Jantz, we successfully advocated for the Navajo Nation ban on uranium mining in 2005. It passed 63-19 on August 15, 2005. About a month later, President Shirley held a signing ceremony. That was a high water mark in the campaign to keep uranium in the ground, and keeping HRI from moving forward.
The other major effort was that in working with Church Rock chapter 2003-2007, the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project, or “CRUMP”, (SRIC’s work with Chapter), we uncovered evidence that the old Church Rock mine, which is going to be site of HRI mining (including Larry J. King’s land) was highly contaminated. Because it was under license, we asserted that NRC had to consider radiological impacts of the site under the NRC license…and we attracted Navajo Nation and Navajo Department of Justice to become involved. We collaborated on a monitoring program that led to investigation by Navajo EPA, and what led to trespassing charge levied against HRI on [its proposed Section 17 minesite] on the grounds of 1959 surface action agreement…that acknowledged uranium mining, but not waste removal.
The Navajo Nation required cleanup of the Section 17 site before it would grant permission to cross Navajo lands to get to the [proposed Section 8 minesite]. Working together, ENDAUM, SRIC and the Law Center found out that HRI crossed a 40 foot section of tribal trust land to enter its holdings. A subsequent settlement gave HRI strict conditions for passing over the land, but the Navajo Nation would not allow passage in order to start uranium mining.
As we sit here now, many years later, the authority of the Navajo Nation to ban uranium mining in Navajo Indian Country and to restrict access to mining companies, have never been challenged in court. These are legal instruments of the Navajo Nation. There has been absolutely zero movement towards challenging any of those authorizations.
We knew from day one that URI was undercapitalized, and surviving on the “Pot of a yellowcake at the end of the rainbow” – they were depending upon the recovery of the uranium market to improve. There remains a lot of uranium on the open market…New Mexico’s ore is lower grade, and has higher costs than other sources of uranium around the world.
If you challenge an NRC license, you have to go into that with eyes wide open. We don’t think NRC has ever denied a materials source license, so you’re fighting an uphill battle. The licensing board asserts objectivity and fairness, and then generally look out for the licensee or applicant, and have disdain for the opponents of the license. Any assertion of fairness is false from the moment they utter it. Challenging licenses before NRC is a deck stacked against the intervenors. For example, we look back from day one, and it seems whenever a holiday season came around, we were having major deadlines in our case – always had to work through Christmas and new year’s, burning the midnight oil to prepare the pleadings and briefs…every time.
From 2016, in retrospect, all of us were successful (ENDAUM, community NMELC, SRIC) we have been successful that there was no uranium produced under that license, and it is unlikely that any uranium will be produced under that license. We need to keep uranium in the ground, and not release it. Protect the water resources and water supply for Crownpoint and Church Rock. Prevent the hauling of uranium from Church Rock to Crownpoint. We were successful in that respect. We did not defeat the license…our challenge went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But throughout that process, as tedious and expensive and frustrating as it was, the overall result was to raise awareness of the fact that uranium is in the ground, and the uranium industry is looking to develop these resources at the expense of Dine communities.
I would also say that none of us would have been able to accomplish these things without the legal assistance of New Mexico Environmental Law Center. All three of those attorneys are brilliant, gifted people who have made their marks on environmental law over the years, and we have enjoyed working with them and Diane Curran. And the generosity of a lot of donors and foundation…without them, we couldn’t have done this.
Chris Shuey and his colleagues at SRIC, particularly Paul Robinson, have worked for decades with residents of uranium-impacted communities in New Mexico and around the world. Chris is an expert in the health impacts of uranium, and has been a critical partner in studying how uranium-contaminated groundwater has affected Diné (Navajo) residents, including pregnant women and their children. When Uranium Resources, Inc. (URI) first hatched its Crownpoint Uranium Project scheme, the uranium mines and mills of the Grants Uranium Belt had been shuttered for less than a decade, and many in the region were keen for a mining renaissance. Chris spoke with NMELC staffer Shelbie Knox.