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SHORT TITLE Uranium Mining Hearings, Permits & Locations
SB 17
APPROPRIATION (dollars in thousands)
or Non-Rec
General Fund
(Parenthesis ( ) Indicate Expenditure Decreases)
FY10 3 Year
Total Cost
or Non-Rec
Recurring General
(Parenthesis ( ) Indicate Expenditure Decreases)
Relates to HJM 2 & HB 22
LFC Files
Responses Received From
Economic Development Department (EDD)
Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources Department (EMNRD)
Environment Department (ED)
Indian Affairs Department (IAD)
Synopsis of Bill
Senate Bill 17 amends the New Mexico Mining Act and the Water Quality Act to:
Eliminate the exception for sites under the authority of the federal Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) from being
regulated under the Mining Act by amending the definition of “mineral" and “mining".
Senate Bill 17– Page 2
Eliminate the exemption of “minimal impact" mining sites from the public notice and
hearing permitting requirements.
Add a requirement that the Director of the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division
(MMD) shall not issue a permit for exploration drilling or a new mining operation within
1000 feet of an existing dwelling or within 1000 feet of any imaginary line extending
vertically from an existing dwelling.
In addition, the Water Quality Act is proposed to be amended to add a requirement that a
constituent agency of the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) shall not
issue a permit or shall deny the certification of a federal water quality permit if the permit is
related to drilling for insitu uranium mining and if the drilling will occur within 1000 feet of an
existing dwelling or within 1000 feet of any imaginary line extending vertically from an existing
SB 17 has an emergency clause.
SB 17 will expand the permitting responsibilities of the EMNRD Mining and Minerals Division
(MMD) to permit mining operations currently exempted from the Mining Act and to require
public notice and hearings for all small permit applications. Given the significant increase in
uranium project development and the number of minimal impact applications currently received
by MMD, these changes could significantly increase the workload for EMNRD. The agency has
requested one additional FTE for FY 08 to handle increased permitting demands under the
current law. The agency probably needs to request additional FTE’s to handle the additional
permits and public hearings mandated by changes in SB 17.
ED states no fiscal impacts are anticipated from the elimination of the exemption for the
“minimal impact" mining sites from the public notice and hearing permitting requirements, and
for implementing the setback requirements. However, SB17’s provisions for MMD regulation of
NRC regulated sites will result in additional ED staff time being devoted to coordinating ED
existing uranium permit authority with MMD’s new permit duties. The task will require
significant funding and staff resources. Appropriation of funds is not included and ED does not
have the resources to accomplish this task.
EMNRD provided the following:
Currently, “conventional" uranium mines (underground and open pit) and exploration
projects are required to be permitted by MMD under the Mining Act. Uranium in-situ
leaching operations and uranium mills are exempted from the Mining Act but are
required to obtain a license from the NRC and water quality permits from the
Environment Department. By requiring a Mining Act permit for these uranium facilities,
State oversight of these uranium facilities would be increased somewhat and public
involvement will be increased. However, the industry will argue that the regulatory goals
of the Mining Act are largely covered by the NRC licensing process and, therefore,
Mining Act permitting would be duplicative. They may also argue that the State is
preempted by the Atomic Energy Act.
Senate Bill 17– Page 3
This bill will require public notice and hearings for each application for small exploration
and mining operations that fall under the “minimal impact" category. Currently, the Act
provides that these operations will be permitted “without notice and hearing". This
change will increase the ability of the public to learn about and comment on small mining
operations. However, the new language seems to mandate a public hearing for all small
mining operations, whereas for larger operations, the Act only mandates an “opportunity
for a public hearing". As a result, EMNRD will need to conduct a public hearing for
every minimal impact application regardless of whether there is any public interest in the
application. Unlike the other changes in SB 17 which apply only to uranium operations,
this change applies to all minimal impact operations.
This bill will prohibit uranium mining and exploration drilling that may occur within
1000 feet of a residence under both the Mining Act and the Water Quality Act. The Act
currently has no setback requirements. Most hard rock mining occurs away from
residences, however, in the past, there has been some uranium mining and exploration
near residences. Last year, MMD did receive a uranium exploration application which
was located within the community of Crownpoint. That application was denied for other
ED provided the following information:
Uranium mining and processing was extensive in New Mexico from the 1950s to the
1970s. Those operations were mainly conducted prior to the enactment of state and
federal regulations that protect human health and the environment. Therefore, many of
those operations resulted in significant environmental impacts, including water pollution.
At this time, there are no active conventional or insitu uranium mines in New Mexico.
However, due to the increase in the price of uranium, mining companies have expressed
interest in new mining, and there has been some recent exploratory drilling for uranium
Current state water quality regulations are designed to prevent future water pollution at
any new uranium mining and processing facilities that fall under the state’s jurisdiction.
Since 1978, pursuant to the Water Quality Act, uranium operators have been required to
obtain groundwater discharge permits under the WQCC Regulations to prevent ground
water contamination. Requirements for financial assurance to ensure mine sites are
adequately closed following cessation of operations, and requirements to abate any soil,
groundwater, or surface water contamination that may occur are also in place.
The proposed amendment to the definition of “mineral" and “mining" has the effect of
making all NRC regulated sites such as uranium mills and insitu uranium extraction wells
subject to a permit from the MMD. Currently, these activities are not regulated by
MMD, but are regulated by the state under ground water discharge permits issued by ED
pursuant to the Water Quality Act as discussed above. The proposed inclusion into the
Mining Act of facilities regulated by NRC could be viewed as redundant and creates
multiple state regulation of the same activity, which is already occurring under ED
permits. It will provide little additional environmental benefit to New Mexico.
Under this amendment there will be extensive new coordination activities involved on the
part of ED and MMD in addition to those already existing between ED and the NRC.
Senate Bill 17– Page 4
This would appear to conflict with existing portions of the Mining Regulations which
seek to avoid duplicative and conflicting requirements, as well as, existing portions of the
Mining Regulations where the Director of MMD is required to consult with the staff of
other federal and state agencies responsible for the review of mining operations for
compliance with other applicable laws and the issuance of permits for the mining
operations, for the purpose of avoiding duplication and conflicting requirements with the
Mining Act and Mining Regulations.
There are already potential jurisdictional problems between the ED and NRC which
could become exacerbated with this amendment. In 2001 the NRC made some changes
to their “Uranium Recovery Policy" which ED disputed. The changes basically indicated
that non-agreement states, of which New Mexico belongs, had no authority over the
regulation of mill tailings and that there should be no concurrent state jurisdiction. The
issue was never formally resolved but NRC and ED staff worked around this issue, so far,
to the extent that NRC is tacitly accepting ED’s permitting role for protection of ground
water quality and public health. However, if MMD is given additional and possibly
duplicative regulatory authority, NRC could attempt to block the state out of having a
regulatory role at these sites.
In regards to insitu uranium extraction wells it is not clear what MMD will regulate.
Insitu uranium extraction wells involve wells drilled into uranium bearing formations at
depth under the ground. Oxygenated water is injected into the formation in one well and
is circulated to another well where the water is pumped to the surface where the uranium
is extracted in a processing facility and the water is then recirculated through the
subsurface formation for additional uranium extraction. The subsurface injection is
subject to state underground injection permits and ground water discharge permits
pursuant to the WQA and WQCC regulations in accordance with ED’s primacy grant
from EPA for the federal Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program under the
federal Safe Drinking Water Act. If MMD is involved in this aspect of the uranium
mining then it could affect ED’s UIC primacy grant.
In addition, the main purpose of the Mining Act is to assure reclamation of mine sites
towards some sort of post mining land use (PMLU). For uranium sites, final closure of
the site is dictated by NRC. Following closure, all uranium mill sites are transferred to
the Department of Energy (DOE) for long term stewardship and not a PMLU. ED has
worked around these issues with the existing ground water discharge permits to ensure
that state closure requirement are met prior to site transfer. The Mining Act does not
contemplate sites such as these that have such complex federal jurisdictional issues. For
instance, MMD requires financial assurance for all mine sites. ED has allowed the
federal government to hold the financial assurance on mill sites because the federal
government was considered a safe financial risk. NRC would not want to have joint
bonding with MMD.
EDD believes that the economic development impact for Senate Bill 17 will put a hold on or
greatly lengthen the delay of the implementation of insitu leach mining activities and the
expanded uranium mining industry in Cibola and McKinley Counties. Recently, Uranium
Resources announced the purchase of a Nuclear Regulatory Licensed Mill Site near Ambrosia
Lake that will create 200 new jobs with over a $1 billion in investment over the project timeline.
Other mining interests are located near Crownpoint, New Mexico. In addition to in situ mining,
conventional mining will also be required in certain situations.
Senate Bill 17– Page 5
ED and EMNRD claim additional full time employees will be needed to manage this
coordination effort in order that duties mandated by statute are not compromised.
SB 17 relates to HB 22, Uranium-related Health Study and HJM 2, Superfund for Uranium-
Contaminated Sites.
IAD noted the following:
Uranium is widely found in the United States, but New Mexico has a high concentration
which makes it particularly attractive to those who seek to mine it. Estimates are that 600
million pounds of uranium lie under New Mexico's sandy soil. And the energy produced
by a pellet of uranium the size of a fingertip is equal to that produced by nearly a ton of
From 1944-1986, nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore were mined in and around the
Navajo Nation for energy and nuclear weapons production. When these mines ceased
operation, many of them were left abandoned and often left poorly contained without
reclamation. Today, the abandoned uranium mines are proving to present a variety of
health and environmental risks to New Mexico’s citizens and environment.
Over the years, scientists have scientifically linked uranium and other chemicals
produced during the process of uranium milling with serious health risks. These
chemicals, including radon, radium, and arsenic, have been associated with cancer,
kidney disease, birth defects, neurotoxicity, neuropathy, hyperpigmentation and
hyperkeratosis of the skin. In animals, exposures to these substances through water
contamination have been documented to cause birth and genetic defects.
In 2005, the Navajo Nation passed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act, banning
uranium mining on tribal lands and citing among other reasons the connections between
uranium mining and milling and health risks to its people. This law states that there is a
reasonable potential of injury to humans, both to health and economic wellbeing, from
uranium mining that the Navajo Nation deems unacceptable. The Navajo Nation is
currently lobbying Congress for a federal moratorium on uranium mining both within the
reservation’s boundaries and beyond in what’s commonly referred to as a checkerboard
of Indian and non-Indian land.
In situ mining has also raised concerns in New Mexico regarding potential ground water
contamination, especially among New Mexico’s Tribes, Nations and Pueblos. A 2007
article from the Albuquerque Tribune stated that, insitu leaching sites in New Mexico are
close to
Navajo Nation and Laguna and Acoma Pueblo lands and aquifers. The article
further states that in-situ leaching has a “reputation outside the uranium and nuclear
industries as a dirty process with potentially great public hazards. Problems involve:
leaching chemicals that invade freshwater; high accumulations of radium and radon; the
Senate Bill 17– Page 6
dissolving not only of uranium but also of other radioactive materials and heavy metals,
such as radium, lead and cadmium; disposing of wastewater and guarding for leaks; and
the practice of diluting wastewater with clean water and injecting it into the aquifer."
According to the Cibola National Forest, “Mt. Taylor is located on the eastern end of the
Grants Uranium Belt, one of the richest known reserves of uranium ore in the country.
There have been two historical uranium ‘mining booms’ in the area in the 1950’s and
again in the 1970’s. “Current high demand for uranium mining is being fueled by
1) dwindling uranium stockpiles from existing sources, and
2) new orders for a large number of nuclear-fueled power plants worldwide.
These factors have created an all time high price for uranium that is expected to rise even
higher into the foreseeable future. That demand has resulted in a new interest in mining
uranium on the Cibola National Forest as well as on other public and private lands in the
Grants area."