Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Uranium mining firm asks for appeals court review

June 6, 2009


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – A uranium mining company has asked a federal appeals court to review an April decision that a proposed uranium mine site in western New Mexico is on American Indian land.

Lewisville, Texas-based Uranium Resource Inc. said Monday it asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver for an “en banc review” of the decision that sided with the Environmental Protection Agency. Monday was the deadline for making the request.

A 2-1 decision made on April 17 by a three-judge panel requires URI subsidiary Hydro Resources Inc. to obtain a groundwater injection permit from the Environmental Protection Agency, which delays the company’s plans to mine for uranium near Church Rock. The company already has a state groundwater injection permit.

Hydro Resources Inc. had challenged an EPA ruling that the mine site was on Indian land. The site is surrounded by the Navajo Nation.

“Our objective remains to resolve issues with the Navajo Nation regarding uranium mining in New Mexico, so we can be well positioned to begin production as quickly and as safely as possible,” URI president and chief executive, Dave Clark, said in a news release.

An en banc review would bring the case before 12 circuit court judges, but the court could always reject the request.

Rick Van Horn, vice president of URI, said the company hopes the judges will reconsider the April ruling.

“The way the opinion was written, it looked like we had a chance of doing something with it,” Van Horn said in a telephone interview from Kingsville, Texas.

If the court fails to review the case, Van Horn said his company’s plans are to obtain the EPA permit, but doing so would delay the project by six to 18 months. It is the last permit needed before mining can begin.

URI, which has a license to mine 15 million pounds of uranium, could be producing within 18 months to two years using the state groundwater injection permit it already has, he said, if the Navajo Nation would lift a ban on uranium mining.

“We would much rather settle this with the Native Americans and go forward so we can just start mining,” he said.

Many Navajos oppose renewed uranium mining in northwestern New Mexico because they suffered health and environmental problems during previous uranium mining booms in the 1960s and 1970s.

But Van Horn has maintained methods of mining have improved in recent decades and his company is committed to environmental protection and the safety of its employees.

“We continue to meet with members of the Nation and I believe we are making some progress” on resolving their concerns, he said.

Telephone calls to a spokesman for Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. were not immediately returned Monday.

A senior attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice’s Natural Resources Unit who has previously commented on the case has said the tribe wants the EPA rather than the state to have jurisdiction over groundwater at the proposed mine because the federal government has a higher obligation to protect the interests of American Indians.

Hydro Resources, which owns the surface and mineral rights, wants to inject chemicals into the ground to release uranium and pump the solution to the surface in a process called in-situ leaching.

The company had sought a permit from New Mexico in 2005 to operate the mine, but the state asked the EPA to make a decision on the status of the land.

Hydro Resources has argued the site, known as Section 8, isn’t legally part of the Navajo reservation and is private land. But the appellate panel determined that the EPA was correct in designation the land as Indian Country.

The Church Rock chapter was set aside by the federal government, which bought land from the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad Company in the 1920s and gave some parcels to individual Navajos and placed others into a trust for the Navajo Nation.


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