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  Sierra Magazine
  January/February 2008
Table of Contents
Can They Get Along?
Keep Your Eye on the Globe
Big Debate Over the Big Box
Chilling Lessons
It's Global Warming, Stupid!
Power Hungry
Editor's Note
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
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Sierra Magazine
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Gathering Clouds
As uranium prices rise, mining companies eye tribal lands again
By Marilyn Berlin Snell
January/February 2008

Power Hungry | Frontier Justice—in a Good Way

Behind Mitchell Capitan's corral in Crownpoint, New Mexico, lies the property Hydro Resources Inc. wants to develop as a uranium mine.

WHEN MITCHELL CAPITAN IS NOT CHECKING WATER QUALITY and serving customers of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, he's perfecting his calf-roping skills for the rodeo circuit he's worked since he was a youth. Capitan, 56, says he learned how to organize people after cofounding the Navajo Nation Rodeo Cowboys Association. His skills have come in handy in his decades-long fight to protect his community from a proposed uranium mine.

Though Teddy Nez and his family are finally getting some relief from radioactive contamination (see "Power Hungry"), Capitan is still in the trenches. Capitan lives with his family in Crownpoint, a Navajo Nation town smack inside New Mexico's "checkerboard" region. Though the Navajo tribe owns most of the land in this area, some plots are owned by non-Navajos, mining companies, federal agencies, and the state. The checkerboard also has a complex and often confusing network of subsurface mineral and water rights--which has made the regulation of those resources all the harder.

When I visit him in August 2007, Capitan introduces me to his horses Skip and Buster and the roan he says is fast but mean, then points beyond them to the land being eyed for a uranium mine by Hydro Resources Incorporated. He's been fighting the company since 1994, when it initially filed for a permit to begin mining operations near his home.

The company wants to mine by injecting water into the uranium ore body and bringing it to the surface, where the ore can be extracted. The water is then reinjected into the ground. Though this method is touted as a less environmentally damaging alternative to traditional uranium mining, with its tons of radioactive waste, Capitan worried that the process would contaminate the aquifer 15,000 people in this semiarid region depend on. He'd worked as a lab technician for a pilot project trying to do the same type of mining in the 1980s and just didn't believe the water could be sufficiently decontaminated before it was reinjected. Others agreed.

Mitchell Capitan still competes in rodeos, but his biggest challenge these days is trying to keep a uranium mine from opening near his home and corral.

Capitan founded a community group to oppose the mining operation and teamed up with the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based environmental group. They attended permit hearings in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and brought along hydrologists who showed how the process could poison the aquifer. They lobbied their congressional delegations and talked to neighbors. Capitan and the center eventually drafted the legislation that became the 2005 Dine Natural Resources Protection Act banning uranium mining on "Navajo Indian Country" lands.

Thus far, Capitan and his colleagues have been successful in thwarting Hydro Resources's efforts. But the company has a lawsuit currently before the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging a recent ruling that says because the company's proposed mine site is in "Indian Country," the Navajo Nation has the right to enforce its ban. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already granted Hydro Resources's permit to operate, however, and if the company prevails in court, it won't matter that local residents oppose the project.

As Capitan tells his story, he pushes his cowboy hat back on his forehead. He admits he's getting worn down by the fight and frustrated that those who benefit from the electricity uranium produces don't pay more attention to how it gets made. "The front side, mining, is contamination," he says. "The other side, waste, is contamination for many generations to come."

Monsoons are building to the east of Capitan's corral, and distant lightening is making the horses skittish. The wind picks up. Anvil-shaped thunderheads are lumbering our way. "We still have radioactive contamination on the reservation from mining done decades ago," he adds. "Why do we have to sacrifice so you can enjoy your lights and air-conditioning?"

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's senior writer.

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Photos by Marilyn Berlin Snell; used with permission.

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