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Is the Navajo Nation President Being a Hypocrite about Uranium Mining

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Is the Navajo Nation President Being a Hypocrite about Uranium Mining

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 80 percent of the electricity in New Mexico is generated each year by burning coal. The irony is that the dominant anti-nuclear group in New Mexico, Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), has shown no evidence of denouncing coal consumption. According to Don Hancock, an SRIC Administrator who directs the non-profit organization’s Nuclear Waste Safety Program, the group’s “spiritual mentor” is John W. Gofman. The former nuclear physicist is an aging, eccentric author who was discredited by the Atomic Energy Commission and was branded by the nuclear power industry as “beyond the pale of reasonable communication.” As a kind gesture, Hancock gave us a copy of a Gofman “cartoon book,” whose theme revolves around Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience.” Another cosmic ally is Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a favorite Don Hancock icon.

While Gofman championed solar energy in his hey day, Lovins presently espouses hydrogen as a primary solution for transportation, wind, and increasing efficiency through natural gas. However, neither wind power nor solar energy is a relevant energy source in New Mexico. Hydroelectricity supplies about 0.7 percent of New Mexico’s electricity generation. Despite the hoopla and hyperbole, all of other renewable energy sources combined supply New Mexico with a mere 0.6 percent of its electricity. Coal is, in a very big way, the overwhelming reason why New Mexicans are not living in darkness and without heat or air conditioning.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, about 2400 people die every year from the air pollution caused from each million tons of sulfur dioxide emitted. In 1999, it is estimated that over 1.05 billion tons were produced, releasing 11.856 million tons of sulfur oxides and more than 5 million tons of nitrous oxides. Having personally inspected the first floor library of SRIC headquarters, no anti-coal mining literature was discovered. There appears to be scant fund-raising interest from these environmental activists to close down New Mexico’s large coal mines. In fact, more U.S. coal mining deaths were reported in 2005 than deaths from uranium mining (zero). StockInterview.com heard no worries at SRIC over the blackening of coal miner’s lungs, but the staff appeared very concerned over the radon gas emitted from uranium mining. Uranium mining in New Mexico came to a standstill about twenty years ago. Coal mining continues as it has for seven decades.

Don’t expect the coal mines of New Mexico to be closed any time soon, though. No matter how deadly coal mines are, coal production is irreplaceable at this time. According to the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, tax revenues from coal in 2001 exceeded $30 million. Nearly one-half of the state’s energy needs are met through coal-generated power. The coal industry employed 1,800 people in 2001. New Mexico is the country’s leader for methane gas production from coal beds. Coal is the state’s third largest source of revenues.

An EPA Toxic Release Inventory report published in 2000 reported that two power plants and their coal mines in New Mexico’s San Juan County released 13 million pounds of chemical toxins into the Four Corner’s area (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado). It was also reported that 6.5 million tons of solid waste was buried by the two San Juan County power plants on their sites or at nearby coal mines. Those airborne toxins were minuscule compared to over 300 million pounds of other emissions, such as particulates and nitrogen dioxide released into the air, and which can travel for hundreds of miles. Reports confirm those power plants were among the worst polluters in the United States. The eighth worst emitter was Giant Refining, about 17 miles from Gallup, New Mexico, which emitted 608,000 pounds according to the EPA report. Any visitor to the Gallup area can readily smell the stench circulating in the air.

Does Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr Have Double Standards?

Why haven’t the Navajo banned coal mining on the reservation as they have uranium mining? According to Anna Frazier, a Navajo affiliated with a local environmental group, “Our Navajo Nation is certainly not going to do that. They would rather have the revenues coming in from the coal companies and the power plants.” According to a news report published in Indian Country newspaper, “The Navajo Nation receives the bulk of its annual $100 million operating expenses from royalties, leases and taxes from its coal, oil and gas. These revenues provide operational expenses for the tribal government, including the salaries of the 88-member Navajo Nation Council, the tribe’s annual budgets show.”

For more than 35 years, Peabody Energy has operated massive mines on Navajo territory. The closure of one such coal mine, the Black Mesa, sent the Navajos rushing for their Maalox. Ironically, it was environmental activists that forced Southern California Edison to close their Mojave Generating Station nearly 300 miles away in Laughlin, Nevada. The utility was given a choice: cough up $1 billion to stop polluting the Grand Canyon or shut it down. It had been called “one of the dirtiest coal plants in the West,” and air emissions from that plant reportedly polluted half a dozen other national parks in the Southwest. But, that coal mine provided about 15 percent of the Navajo’s annual budget. George Hardeen, the Navajo president’s media voice, complained about the mine closing last October, “This is going to have a terrible effect on this entire region because the Navajo economy is so fragile.”

John Dougherty complained about the Navajo Nation’s tactics in the Phoenix New Times newspaper in March 2005, observing, “Environmental groups have long exploited the Native American tradition of sacred places to fight their battles to preserve wilderness areas…It’s always the soulful Native American who steps forward as the high priest of sacred geography. In the background lurks the environmentalist equipped with charts and data on tree-trunk diameters and spotted-owl nesting sites.” Dougherty concluded, “The cries of environmental destruction and cultural murder from Navajo and Hopi leaders ring hollow.”

What are not going to be ringing at all will be the cash registers at Albertsons supermarket in Bullhead City, near Laughlin (Nevada), which closed down this week. That’s because the Mojave power station closed as advertised because of the dirty Black Mesa coal. Mike Conner, president of the Bullhead Area Chamber of Commerce, said, “The community will be devastated.” Across the river in Laughlin, Buddy Borden of the University of Nevada at Reno told a group of community leaders the area “will take an almost $21 million hit” in lost power plant payrolls. The facility will lay off 375 employees, who had an average annual wage of $87,000. Like dominoes falling, jobs in Nevada, Arizona and in the Navajo Nation were lost.

Recently, Navajo president Joe Shirley Jr. considered replacing budget shortfalls with casinos, four in Nevada and two in New Mexico. Last March, Senator John McCain forecast the Navajo casinos would fail because of their remote locations. Shirley quipped back in the Arizona Republic newspaper, “I beg to differ with him.” One coal mine that won’t be on the Navajo reservation is the first to receive an operating permit in six years. Peabody Energy announced a coal mine on Lee Ranch, one of New Mexico’s largest landowners. It is projected to produce 102 million tons of coal over the next thirty years.

For the time being, the Navajos hope to solve their economic quagmire by just putting up more casinos across a New Mexico landscape, already replete with “truck stop casinos.” One can soon get bored guessing when the next casino will surface while driving across either Interstate 40 or I-25, the state’s main arteries. First you see a sign announcing which tribal land you are entering, then the ubiquitous billboard describing which has-been musical act is “now appearing,” and then finally the combination truck stop, casino, restaurant(s) and discount smoke shop whizzes by. One aging Navajo told us, “It’s bad for the families, and it sets a bad example for the younger ones.”

On Navajo reservation land and just in New Mexico alone, Joe Shirley Jr may control more than 75 million pounds of uranium, with a gross value presently exceeding $2.7 billion. Some say the number could run much higher, into the hundreds of millions of pounds. Don’t expect Mr. Shirley to over turn his ban on uranium any time soon. Dr. Fred Begay, a Navajo and nuclear physicist at Los Alamos, whose career has been featured on BBC Television and in the pages of National Geographic and celebrated by the New York Academy of Science, explained the problem, “The Navajo don’t get it. They think that they’ll have miners. They have illiteracy on mining and uranium.” Dr. Begay clarified that the Navajo have failed to differentiate between conventional uranium mining and ISL operations, which he considers safe, “They think that miners are going in there and digging it out.”

Perhaps the illiteracy about mining extends to geochemistry. Coal is big money in New Mexico, and a little-known fact about the composition of coal may enlighten more than just environmentalists. Former Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers J. P. McBride, R. E. Moore, J. P. Witherspoon, and R. E. Blanco reported in Science magazine (Dec 8, 1978: “Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants”) the shocking conclusion that “Americans living near coal-fired power plants are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants that meet government regulations.”

In an article entitled “Coal Combusion: Nuclear Resource or Danger,” researcher Alex Gabbard, explained, “Coal is one of the most impure of fuels. Its impurities range from trace quantities of many metals, including uranium and thorium, to much larger quantities of aluminum and iron to still larger quantities of impurities such as sulfur. Products of coal combustion include the oxides of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur; carcinogenic and mutagenic substances; and recoverable minerals of commercial value, including nuclear fuels naturally occurring in coal.”

Did you know that the amount of radioactive thorium contained in coal is about 2.5 times greater than the amount of uranium? For a large number of coal samples, according to Environmental Protection Agency figures released in 1984, average values of uranium and thorium content have been determined to be 1.3 ppm and 3.2 ppm, respectively. Uranium and thorium are IN coal.

For the year 1982, assuming coal contains those same uranium and thorium concentrations, each typical plant released 5.2 tons of uranium (containing 74 pounds of uranium-235) and 12.8 tons of thorium that year. Total U.S. releases in 1982 (from 154 typical plants) amounted to 801 tons of uranium (containing 11,371 pounds of uranium-235) and 1971 tons of thorium. These figures account for only 74{4d40cc26d078fd4100d2daf00165e0560f17ee302de6bc2409b7ee95793dc9eb} of releases from combustion of coal from all sources. Releases in 1982 from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium. Coal consumption has jumped dramatically since 1982 – by more than double!

Gabbard calculated the net impact of the release of uranium and thorium from coal burning by the year 2040:
Based on the predicted combustion of 2516 million tons of coal in the United States and 12,580 million tons worldwide during the year 2040, cumulative releases for the 100 years of coal combustion following 1937 are predicted to be:

U.S. release (from combustion of 111,716 million tons):

Uranium: 145,230 tons (containing 1031 tons of uranium-235)

Thorium: 357,491 tons

Worldwide release (from combustion of 637,409 million tons):

Uranium: 828,632 tons (containing 5883 tons of uranium-235)

Thorium: 2,039,709 tons

The population effective dose equivalent from coal plants is 100 times that from nuclear plants. According to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the average radioactivity per short ton of coal is 17,100 millicuries/4,000,000 tons, or 0.00427 millicuries/ton. This figure can be used to calculate the average expected radioactivity release from coal combustion. For 1982 the total release of radioactivity from 154 typical coal plants in the United States was, therefore, 2,630,230 millicuries.

Gabbard explained further: “Thus, by combining U.S. coal combustion from 1937 (440 million tons) through 1987 (661 million tons) with an estimated total in the year 2040 (2516 million tons), the total expected U.S. radioactivity release to the environment by 2040 can be determined. That total comes from the expected combustion of 111,716 million tons of coal with the release of 477,027,320 millicuries in the United States. Global releases of radioactivity from the predicted combustion of 637,409 million tons of coal would be 2,721,736,430 millicuries.”

Uranium and the entire nuclear fuel cycle are blamed for a host of ills by the anti-nuclear crowd, but little is reported on the subject of radioactivity released from burning coal. Gabbard writes, “Large quantities of uranium and thorium and other radioactive species in coal ash are not being treated as radioactive waste. These products emit low-level radiation, but because of regulatory differences, coal-fired power plants are allowed to release quantities of radioactive material that would provoke enormous public outcry if such amounts were released from nuclear facilities. Nuclear waste products from coal combustion are allowed to be dispersed throughout the biosphere in an unregulated manner. Collected nuclear wastes that accumulate on electric utility sites are not protected from weathering, thus exposing people to increasing quantities of radioactive isotopes through air and water movement and the food chain.”

While environmental groups hold fund raisers to stop uranium mining, protest the nuclear fuel cycle, and lobby to have vested interest groups, such as the Navajo Nation, ban uranium mining on the reservation, little data or statistics can be found about the daily tragedies found through coal production. There is no vocal outcry from Southwest Research and Information Center about coal mining, let alone the radioactive dangers found in releasing toxic coal fumes into the atmosphere.

It was a difficult task to locate the data illustrating, as Mr. Gabbard has done, that the radioactivity IN coal, from thorium and uranium, is far more deadly than the world’s fleet of nuclear reactors. Will Joe Shirley, Jr. now ban coal mining on the Navajo reservation lands? After all, a greater amount of radioactivity is released among the Navajo from coal consumption than uranium mining ever would have achieved. Or will Mr. Shirley let that slide because his budget committee wouldn’t stand for it?

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