After drilling six exploratory holes by Mt. Taylor earlier this year in search of uranium, the Western Energy Development Corporation is asking for state and federal permission to drill 47 more.
The Canadian-based resource company submitted its plans to the U.S. Forest Service late last month for approval. The New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department is expecting the company to request a state permit soon.
It will make Western Energy the latest in a new wave of companies rushing to confirm their New Mexico reserves in the face of rising uranium prices. Several groups fighting this trend fear the mining will scar the land, contaminate their ground water and desecrate a sacred Native American site.
The Natural Resources Department has already granted two exploratory mining permits near Grants this year one of them to Western Energy and has three more under consideration. Western Energy's latest request will make four.
Because the company is proposing to drill in a national forest, it needs permission from more than just the state. The Forest Service will be studying Western Energy's plans to make sure they don't threaten to leave any residual radiation behind. It's also accepting public comment on the plans until Jan. 2.
While the Forest Service can saddle Western Energy with mitigation and reclamation demands, it can't actually stop the company from drilling.
The last company to petition the Forest Service for permission to drill some exploratory holes also near Grants was Nevada-based Urex Energy. Cibola National Forest Minerals Program Manager Rod Byers, the man responsible for collecting the public's comments, said only one person wrote it, but more to complain about uranium mining in general than about Urex's specific plans. He expects the company to start drilling by late December or early January.
Western Energy also hopes to start drilling by early 2007. Like Urex, it wants to find out exactly how much uranium it's sitting on. Past property owners have drilled the area already, according to the Forest Service, but Western Energy can't find the records.
So Western Energy may not know exactly how much uranium it's sitting on, but it knows there's something there. For one thing, the company's property sits in the Grants Mining District, one of the most prolific in the country according to industry reports. For another, it will be drilling not far from a mine that was known to produce uranium from 1957 until it was abandoned 14 years later.
To find out what it's got, Western Energy wants to drill up to 47 holes between 1,000 and 1,500 feet deep. It plans to build a mud pit by each to hold the water the drills will need and lay an additional 670 feet of road to get to them.
The application comes on the heels of last week's Indigenous World Uranium Summit in Window Rock, an effort to united the world's indigenous people against all nuclear activity from mining to waste disposal on native lands. The sites near Grants would be legally safe, sitting on federal land, except that they ring Mt. Taylor, one of the four sacred mountains for the Navajo that outline their ancestral lands.
"We're responsible to preserve and protect the sacred lands because the mountain protects us," said Hazel James of the Dineh Bidziil Coalition fighting the new mining wave. "It's here for our future."
They fear that mining the mountain and its surroundings would desecrate it. But just as worrying for the anti-mining groups are the new techniques the companies are proposing to use.
Western Energy's Web site calls its Grants District claims potentially "amenable" to in situ leach mining, a relatively new technique that injects chemicals into underground rock to dissolve the imbedded uranium, then brings the mix to the surface for processing.
Industry executives say it's safer than past mining techniques, but American Indian communities still living with the radioactive legacy of the country's last uranium mining boom aren't convinced. They fear the technique could contaminate underground water supplies.
The Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque group helping those communities fend off the miners, worry about the cumulative effect all these permits will have if approved. It fears the government is missing the big picture.
"The uptick in the number of permits has caught our attention," said Sarah Cottrell, a policy advisor for Gov. Bill Richardson.
Cottrell said the state had adequate policies in place to handle individual permit requests, but would not comment on whether the governor was working on a broader state policy on uranium mining in New Mexico. She suggested asking Bill Hume, Richardson's director of policy and planning, who could not be reached.
The Forest Service is asking the public to send its comments on Western Energy's plans to Rod Byers at 2113 Osuna Rd. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87113-1001.
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