Uranium Puts Jobs Against Tribal Culture In New Mexico

Mount Taylor, New Mexico

Thousands of feet under the sands of New Mexico lies a deposit of uranium that could revive a struggling local economy. The mining industry and residents eager for jobs see the plateau around Mount Taylor as a powerful economic opportunity. Yet for local Native Americans whose ancestors lived in the area centuries before European settlement, Mount Taylor is a central part of their culture and religion. They are fighting to ensure that archaeological sites, their cultural heritage, and water supply are protected.

Members of local Tribes stress Mount Taylor's importance to their cultural heritage, and many say mining threatens the mountain and its environs, despite industry assurances to the contrary. While state and federal agencies recognise their cultural claim to the land, the law gives them virtually no power to halt mining. "As an Indian nation, we're taught to respect mother earth, and [when] you see somebody doing that, it's like somebody putting a knife in you," said Albert Riley, a Laguna Pueblo tribal official and religious leader.

Mount Taylor - known as "Tsibina" to the Laguna and "Tsoodzil" to the Navajo - lies in the heart of the Grants mineral belt, the site of one of the richest hauls of uranium of the cold war era. For decades, Native Americans enjoyed steady work in uranium mining jobs, and the local economy was fuelled by mine workers who were well compensated for their dangerous occupation.
Beginning in the 1980s, a decades-long depression in uranium prices, provoked in part by concerns over the safety of nuclear power, closed the mines and left the area in an economic slump. However, as China and India are ramping up nuclear power programmes - and the US considers building new nuclear power plants - uranium companies hope to restart mining here. "The world is going nuclear whether the US wants to or not," says David Miller, chief executive of Strathmore Minerals, a Canadian firm seeking to mine in New Mexico. He says that if regulators hinder uranium exploration, "we won't have the high paying jobs supporting a higher quality of life for all the local people".

The area contains an estimated 341 million pounds of uranium reserves, valued at over $3.1billion. Uranium companies say mining and processing will create more than 8,000 jobs. But the promise of new jobs is not enough for members of the Acoma, Hopi, Laguna, Navajo and Zuni Nations who are wary of the effect new mining will have on the environment. The Navajo Nation banned uranium mining from land under its control, only to see a court rule last month that uranium extraction could resume on disputed territory near Church Rock, New Mexico. Industry officials say advances in mining technology and practices would preclude the ill environmental and health affects of the cold war era.

One of the principle proposed mining projects in the area would threaten ancient archaeological sites and would drill thousands of feet into land that the state of New Mexico has recognised as the Tribes' traditional cultural property. Last year, the US national trust for historic preservation listed Mount Taylor as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the country. Meanwhile, New Mexico has designated the mountain and its surroundings as a "traditional cultural property" and added it to a register of historic cultural lands. A coalition of mining companies and landowners are challenging that designation in court.

Still, questions about the safety and preservation efforts of the proposed mining persist. "Even if the archaeological sites are avoided by direct impacts from construction, they could be adversely affected by indirect impacts from erosion, drainage, water run-off, etc," says Michelle Ensey, a state archaeologist. "I am not convinced that the industry has put the time and research and money into mining in ways that don't impact the environment," said June Lorenzo, a Laguna lawyer. "It's irresponsible to dive in, just looking with dollar signs in our eyes, and say it'll bring employment."

EPA Loses Bid To Regulate Uranium Mining Near Tribal Lands

Open Pit Uranium Mine, Wyoming

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has rejected the EPA’s claim that it has primary permitting authority over uranium mining on property near Tribal lands, limiting the federal government’s reach over this controversial mining in major uranium producing states – many of which are also home to Tribal communities.

The Court’s June 16, 2010 ruling in Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI) v. EPA, et al., sides with industry arguments that the site of a particular uranium mine in New Mexico is not located on Tribal land because it falls outside the Navajo Nation’s boundaries. The EPA had argued for a broader standard which would allow it to regulate uranium mining anywhere that is considered “Indian Country” under federal law, even if the property was outside the defined boundaries of a Reservation. A result of the Court’s decision is that regulation of such mines will be left to state law, which is not consistent from state to state.

In its published opinion, the Court noted: “EPA argued . . . that we should cast our gaze beyond the particular land in question. In the Agency’s view, because some sufficiently significant (though unspecified) percentage of neighboring lands -- what EPA calls ‘the community of reference’ -- is Indian country, HRI’s land must be considered Indian country, too.” The Court stated that the EPA’s analysis presupposes “that every piece of land is part of some community of reference,” but the Court rejected that argument.

The ruling is particularly significant because it was issued by the court which oversees Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, all of which are important energy and mineral-producing states and which also have large regions of Tribal lands.