August 18, 2008

Uranium Mining May Be Ticket Home for Some

By Leslie Linthicum

MARQUEZ -- Eight Spanish families looking for opportunity in a strange new world took shelter in caves on the side of the mesa that overlooks the valley where the town of Marquez now sits.

From the caves, they moved to stone houses, then larger, more substantial adobes. They built a church and moved their santos in, then a morada and a system of acequias that brought spring water down from the mountain to irrigate fields and orchards.

Time passed, the town grew and then it stopped growing, as towns that perch in the mountains at the end of dirt roads tend to do.

Today, Marquez sits quite alone. None of the heirs of the Spanish land grant who settled this valley lives here full time and it's easy to understand why. Jobs are in Albuquerque or Grants, and Marquez hides between them -- 25 miles northwest of Laguna Pueblo, the last 15 miles on a dirt road.

When Severo Martinez died in 2005, Marquez lost its last permanent resident. The church was locked and Martinez's son, James, wondered how the town would ever live again.

Martinez stands today on a mesa overlooking the valley dotted with green and sees salvation in an unlikely source: radioactive ore.

The members of the Juan Tafoya Land Grant have leased their mineral rights to a company called Neutron Energy, which plans to mine uranium in the hills.

If Neutron's application is approved by state regulators, the company will reactivate the old Bokum mine and rebuild the old Bokum mill. Both were built, then abandoned before they ever produced a bucket of ore when the bottom fell out of the uranium market.

There are about 16 million pounds of uranium still under the Juan Tafoya Land Grant and, when the mine and mill are cranking, Neutron envisions 450 fulltime jobs here in this isolated spot.

Uranium is a radioactive issue. Feelings run strong in Grants, which sits smack in the middle of the nation's richest uranium belt, and in the little towns and pueblos that fan out on the flanks of Mount Taylor.

Proponents of uranium mining here feel they're sitting on a gold mine, and they'd better embrace it and take advantage of the jobs it will bring.

Opponents remember the last uranium boom that ended with the shuttering of the famous Jackpile Mine at Laguna Pueblo in 1980 and the health problems that followed some of the yellowcake miners. Better to leave the land alone, they say.

Mount Taylor sits in the middle of the uranium belt, and it is held dear by hunters, hikers and campers. It is held sacred by Navajos, Hopis and the people of Zuni, Acoma and Laguna pueblos. And it represents dollar signs -- potentially billions -- for the mining companies that hold uranium leases around it.

Different people, different ideas, inevitable conflict.

At a meeting in Grants earlier this summer to discuss labeling nearly the entire mountain a protected cultural property to require the tribes be consulted before any activity -- including mining -- was permitted, the high school gym was literally divided: Mining advocates on one side, tribal people on the other.

The 500 or so land grant heirs of Marquez say they respect the people sitting on the other side of the gym, but they have made up their minds. They can't wait for the mining to begin.

"The mine will enable us to live here full time," says Martinez, who lives with his family in Albuquerque. "Our kids will come back to the land. We want an opportunity to make our land better and for our people to continue and to prosper." Martinez's youngest son, Amadeo, is 19. He was the last baby to be baptized in the Our Lady of Sorrows church in Marquez and, although he's happy living in the city and attending the University of New Mexico, he'd like to keep alive the tradition put into play when his ancestors shoved off from the coast of Spain.

He's studying geology at UNM on a scholarship paid for by Neutron. When he graduates in three years, he's hoping there's a mine about to open on the ridge that looks out over the village of Marquez and Our Lady of Sorrows.

"The reason I wanted to do geology," he says, "is so I could work in my own backyard."

You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or [email protected]

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