Native Tribes try once again to stop uranium mining at sacred Mt. Taylor
By Linda Pentz Gunter
It’s a tale almost as old as time, except that the “White Man” has not been around as long as that. But long enough to massacre, expel, plunder, desecrate, abandon, repeat.
It’s the story Native Americans know all too well — a Trail of Tears that never really ended. Sacred places and burial sites disrespected, traditions ignored, the health and well-being of people dismissed, while the fundamental civil rights of indigenous populations in the United States continue to be trampled on by the US government and its friends in industry.
It would be tempting to say that the current battle over resumption of uranium mining at the sacred Mount Taylor, which sits atop one of the richest known uranium ore reserves in the country, is just the latest in this long and shameful saga. But it is not alone. There are stories like this everywhere in Indian Country — Bears Ears would be just one more example.
Mt. Taylor, located in the southwestern corner of New Mexico’s San Mateo Mountains, is a pilgrimage site sacred to at least 30 tribes including the Navajo Nation, the Hopi, the Zuni, and the nearby Laguna and Acoma Pueblos. Even the National Trust for Historic Preservation lists Mt. Taylor and points out on its website that new attempts to mine uranium there “may contaminate or impair the primary water source for Acoma Sky City, the oldest inhabited community in the United States,” in addition to the threats posed to the mountain itself from uranium ore extraction operations.
The existing uranium mine site on Mt. Taylor has not been operational since 1990 but got its first standby permit in 1999. The 1993 New Mexico Mining Act allows mines to remain inactive in standby status for a maximum of 20 years before reclamation must be required. Instead, on December 29, 2017, the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division issued a Return to Active Permit for the Mt. Taylor uranium mine, owned by Rio Grande Resources (RGR).
The decision to allow resumption of uranium mining is based on spurious economic claims, say the groups fighting the decision, including the broad coalition, MultiCultural Alliance for a Safe Environment ( MASE) and Amigos Bravos. They face an uphill battle. Writes Earthworks: “Much of the land in question is still governed by the 1872 Mining Law, which permits mining regardless of its impact on cultural or natural resources. Many local tribes fear the development of uranium resources in the Mount Taylor region would destroy the culturally and spiritually significant land.”
Probable contamination of precious water sources is also at stake. The uranium mine, if opened, could “also contaminate the Acoma’s primary water resource, the Rio San Jose,” say Earthworks. “The Rio San Jose is not only a water resource for the local communities, but has cultural significance as well.”
The coalition, with help from attorney Eric Jantz of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is representing MASE and Amigos Bravos, has filed a Petition for Review with the New Mexico Mining Commission requesting that the Commission review the MMD decision. Susan Gordon, MASE coordinator, says RGR is using the law to avoid cleanup. The mine, says Gordon, is “neither producing uranium nor is [RGR] cleaning up its ongoing pollution. The Director’s decision means that a mining company can continue making up even highly unrealistic plans for production at some indeterminate time in the future and effectively put off reclaiming a mine forever,” she said.
Petuuche Gilbert, a member of MASE and the Laguna Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment, said: “Mt Taylor is sacred to Acoma and other indigenous peoples, but it is equally important to other people. It must not be polluted by uranium mining. It is important to all people for water and its other natural resources.”
Some residents already know what a resumption of mining — along with the failure to clean up — will mean. Speaking at two-day May 7-8 public hearing on the MMD decision in Santa Fe, NM, Christine Lowery, of Paguate Village, recalled how she was four years old when uranium mining began at the Mt. Taylor Jackpile mine. As reported by Kathy Helms in the Gallup Independent, Lowery said at the hearing:
“I am entering the last decades of my life and now we are a Superfund site. There is no such thing as reclamation. You can never put things back. In the old days, even the sheepherders knew how dangerous this area was and they would not take their sheep up there to graze because the sheep would get sick. Yes, we were rich in uranium, and we have been sacrificed.”
Public comments on the decision are open until May 29. Use this link to submit your letter.
Headline photo: Uranium Cafe Chinese sign, Route 66, Grants, New Mexico 1979, by John Margolies.