Uranium, which has been blamed for lung cancer, kidney disease, birth defects and other ailments, is being touted once again as a savior to the regional economy, bringing in thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in mineral royalties and taxes for New Mexico.
At least five companies hope to receive state permits to mine uranium reserves — estimated to be 500 million pounds or more — and one company wants to reopen a uranium mill in Ambrosia Lake, north of Grants.
Uranium Resources Inc., a Texas-based company, wants to reopen the mine at Ambrosia Lake, which is not on Navajo land. Officials have said the tribe's ban on uranium mining might limit the company's plans to mine, but will not stop it.
If Uranium Resources Inc. (URI), or any other company is allowed to mine for uranium, it is important that they do so with more than the result of financial success the company will receive. They must do so responsibly, making every effort to ensure the safety of those who live near the mines.
They must acknowledge the distrust the Navajo people have in companies and a government that did little to protect them from the hazards of working in the mines. They must listen to those who suffered major health problems and deaths they believe were caused by uranium. They must share how they plan to protect not only those who work in the mines, but the environment as well.
In 2005, the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining and milling on Navajo land, where most of the uranium deposits hoped to be mined, are located.
Those who worked in the mines weren't aware of the dangers they faced. Larry J. King was one of them.
"We had no respirators; you'd have sweat running down your face with the uranium dust getting in your ears, nose and mouth," King said. "You couldn't help but swallow it."
Many of the miners and their families suffered health problems, and many of them lay the blame for those problems at the feet of those who sent them underground to work. The companies who want to reopen the mines say they will do a better job than their predecessors did in protecting their employees. Pending state legislation would also require companies to put a percentage of their profits into a "legacy fund," which would be used to clean up existing uranium contamination, including the more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and several mill sites in the region.
The issue of uranium mining goes beyond providing another, necessary fuel source in our country. It is more than reopening an old mine and putting people to work. It is more than the economic benefit to the area.
It is about the people who live and work around the area - this generation and generations to come. Whatever the benefits of mining uranium are, if the ultimate cost is injuries, health problems and the loss of lives, the benefits are meaningless.