ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been more than a dozen years since the last uranium ore was mined in New Mexico, but a Canada-based company and a Japanese partner propose to break that spell soon.
The U.S. Forest Service expects to close the comment period in mid-June on a draft environmental impact statement prepared for the proposed Roca Honda uranium mine near Mount Taylor, which the developers say would be the largest in the U.S.
Issuance of a final EIS and approval of a plan of operation by the agency, perhaps later this year, would keep the project fixed on a path to open in several years.
The proposal has plenty of support from the local business community, but faces strong opposition from environmental and Native American groups.
Strathmore Minerals Corp., headquartered in Vancouver, B.C., and Sumitomo Corp. of Japan — known as the Roca Honda Resources LLC Joint Venture — propose to sink one or two shafts to depths of 2,000 feet or more below three sections of Forest Service and state lands, about 22 miles northeast of Grants. Ore would be blasted, loaded into underground equipment and taken to the surface.
RHR says the site contains one of the highest-grade uranium deposits in the U.S. and that the project mine would create almost 640 construction jobs and 250 or so direct jobs at the mine. Ultimately, Roca Honda could generate $2.2 billion in revenue over the life of the mine, according to John DeJoia, senior vice president of Strathmore’s New Mexico operations and manager of Roca Honda Resources.
“I won’t run you through all the economics on that, but you can rest assured there is an awful lot of income tax paid on that,” he said. “There are a lot of New Mexico taxes in there.”
Many in the Grants area would welcome the mine.
“In general, I think the community feels there has been enough technology advancements in the last 30 years, it is something that can be done safely and most certainly would have a major impact on northwest New Mexico but the state in general,” said Grants/Cibola County Chamber of Commerce President Terry Fletcher.
But a coalition of community organizations, including several Native American groups and an organization of former uranium miners, contends a mining operation would imperil the area’s water supply and quality. The group also believes it would severely impact an area designated by the Forest Service as a traditional cultural property that has great spiritual significance for indigenous people across the Southwest.
“It is essentially the same as proposing a huge uranium mine in the middle of the Vatican. There’s just no way to avoid the impacts,” said attorney Eric Jantz of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is representing the coalition, the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment.
Jantz said water pumped from the mine could result in significant drawdowns of surface water and springs. There is also concern waste piles and toxic heavy-metal materials could make their way into ground and surface water, he said.
Past history worries
Opponents are also wary of the industry’s previous track record in the area, which was left with serious contamination and worker health issues when uranium companies pulled out in the ’80s after 40 years of mining.
“Our communities deserve jobs that don’t sacrifice our environment and aren’t dangerous to our health,” said MASE coordinator Nadine Padilla, a Navajo/Pueblo. She said MASE also has support from a number of environmental organizations.
DeJoia said the developers respect Native Americans’ beliefs and cultural properties. The mine operation is about nine miles from the peak of Mount Taylor and will disturb 70 acres — less if only one shaft is sunk — of the 420,000 acres designated as traditional cultural properties, he said.
He said the project will disturb only three small archaeological sites of the 180 on the three sections. “Before we do that, we have to study it, excavate it and recover anything within that site,” he said.
Fears about heavy-metal contamination are unfounded, he said. “We do not generate any toxic heavy (metal) waste,” he said.
Radioactive material, if it’s ore grade, he said, “gets analyzed and sent to the processing facility.” DeJoia said RHR could send the ore to a mill in Blanding, Utah, or build its own facility on company-owned property about 26 miles northwest of the site. He said ore awaiting shipment is placed in concrete bins that don’t permit runoff.
Learning from past mistakes
DeJoia said he would be the “first to admit there are legacy issues,” but that much has been learned in the industry.
“Were cars less safe 60 years ago? Of course they were … Do we know more about food? We certainly do, and that’s the case with uranium, coal, copper,” DeJoia said. “It is an evolving process and just because it wasn’t done properly 40 or 50 years ago doesn’t mean we can’t do it properly today.”
DeJoia said RHR began planning and gathering baseline data at the site in 2007. It submitted a permit application with state regulators in 2009.
He concedes that for now, neither spot market nor long-term sales market prices “support fervent development.”
“However, the nuclear-power situation in the world — in our country — indicates a true shortage and that the price will go up once the fervor over Fukushima and everything gets past us,” he said, noting that the U.S. itself produces only 7 or 8 percent of the 55 million to 60 million pounds of uranium used a year by the nation’s nuclear plants. “We will have to realize nuclear power is probably the most viable, cleanest power source we have.”
DeJoia said the developers believe they will be able to produce nearly 28 million pounds from the mine.
Forest Service options
The developers have a right to enter public lands to access mineral resources under the General Mining Law of 1872. The Forest Service will decide whether to approve the RHR’s proposed plan of operation as submitted or, based on its environmental impact evaluation, to require more steps to protect the area’s surface resources.
RHR also needs to acquire a number of permits from various state agencies, a review process that has generally paralleled the Forest Service evaluation.
“We have to have all the other approvals in place before we could sign off on a mining permit,” said Dave Clark, coal program manager for the state Mining and Mineral Division.
“We would hope to have a permit by the end of the year,” DeJoia said.
The mine permit area would encompass 1,968 acres including haul roads, utility corridor and de-watering discharge pipeline. RHR proposed a two-shaft alternative, with one on state land, and one on Forest Service land.
Water pumped from depressuring wells not meeting discharge standards would be treated at an on-site treatment plant and transported 5.5 miles to a tank on private ranchland for use to irrigate range or pasture land, according to the draft environmental impact statement.
“Basically, you would be able to take this water we’d produce and drink it,” DeJoia said. He said that water, in effect, would go back into the earth, “replenishing the hydrologic cycle.”
There would be 183 acres of surface disturbance. That would shrink to about 120 acres under a one-shaft alternative, also studied by the Forest Service in the draft EIS.
From issuance of the permit, RHR estimates it would take 3 1/2 years for production to begin.
“Although our plan only entails nine years of actual mining, once you get in there, our neighbors will want access to their ore also … so we fully anticipate another nine years with the other properties added in,” he said.
He explained, “What you’re doing here is you’re permitting the surface disturbance … Once we have all the underground development done, I would fully expect our neighbors to say, ‘can you mine our ore?’ ”
One of its neighbors is uranium mining company URI.
The developer would be required to restore the property to its principal grazing use after mining is completed.