The commission imposed an unusually large $100,000 fine for "willful violation of an NRC order." United Nuclear agreed to pay $99,000 without admitting wrongdoing. Velasquez called that "a business decision" and said "there was never a time in which any surety was at risk."
Velasquez said he had no concerns that today's stricter mining regulations might likewise prove inadequate in the future. The Navajos, he said, have more pressing health issues than uranium mining.
"We could worry ourselves to death that one additional cancer in a million will be caused," Velasquez said. "It sounds stereotypical, but these Indians jump in their car and drive 90 miles per hour down the road. But they won't take the risk on uranium."
Twenty-five miles northeast of Church Rock, the groundwater in Crownpoint is pure. Uranium permeates the sandstone in the aquifer, but it is tightly bound.
Water from the six municipal wells, famous for its sweet taste, contains trace concentrations of uranium far below the EPA maximum for drinking water, federal regulators say.
URI wants to transform an old uranium drilling site into a solution-mining zone and processing plant.
For now, the lone employee at the site is Benjamin House, who signed on with URI 10 years ago, when it was the only company pursuing a mining license. A former delegate to the Navajo council, House has purchased airtime on the Navajo radio station to press the company's case. He has also booked tours of URI's Texas facilities for tribal and local leaders.
He steels himself for confrontation as he makes his rounds. URI plans to mine a second site west of Crownpoint. When House stood there recently, in a sparse field of tumbleweeds and pinon trees, a red pickup halted abruptly on the nearest dirt road. The driver leaned out the window to snarl at House.
House knows what his detractors think: "I sold out." But, he said, some Navajos approach him on the sly, saying they could use the jobs mining would bring.
House's most vocal backers are nine extended Navajo families who signed mineral leases with URI in the early '90s. They look forward to receiving royalties if mining gets underway.
Among them is Bessie Largo, a widow who makes ends meet by weaving rugs. Speaking in Navajo translated by House, she said her acreage was not suited for farming. "We are supposed to make a living off that land, and that is exactly what we are trying to do," she said.
Preparing for battle
The tribe claims jurisdiction over any territory where mining would affect Navajo residents, regardless of who owns the land or the mineral rights.
"A sovereign has a right to protect its people against environmental threats," said David Taylor, an attorney in the Navajo Department of Justice.
Mining executives, however, are honing arguments that the tribal ban does not apply to their lease-holdings in an area known as the "checkerboard," at the reservation's southeast edge.
Here, the tribe's communal land gives way to a hodgepodge of parcels held by federal and state agencies, private businesses and other owners. This is where the planned Church Rock and Crownpoint solution-mining sites are.
Strathmore is leasing land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. URI plans to mine on land the Navajos bought from the Santa Fe Railroad in 1929. The railroad retained the mineral rights, and a successor sold them to URI.
The uranium firms don't hide their eagerness to move onto the reservation proper. Pelizza sees the checkerboard projects as the key to achieving that goal.
"There's a concern. Once we've addressed those concerns, maybe the Navajos will see that and make exceptions," he said.
Taylor, the tribal lawyer, says it won't happen.
"We have no intention of letting them mine without a knockdown, drag-out legal battle," he said.
Times researcher Mark Madden contributed to this report.