MAC: Mines and Communities

Officials Look At Mining's Impact

Published by MAC on 2007-07-16
Source: Gallup Independent

Officials look at mining's impact

By Zsombor Peter, Gallup Independent -

16th July 2007

CHURCH ROCK — The dozen state senators and representatives clustered together in Teddy Nez's patchy yard last week knew they were standing on dangerous ground.

The delegation from the New Mexico Indian Affairs Committee, came for a first-hand look at how Navajos were living with the fallout from decades of uranium mining. But when their guides pointed out that the very dirt beneath their feet was still radiating high levels of radium, a few laughed nervously. Others shuffled inconspicuously onto safer soil.

Committee Chairman Ray Begaye believes the daylong hearing in Church Rock helped open some eyes.

"I don't think the committee members realized they were part of the process," he said.

Before visiting the Nez home that morning, some committee members were disavowing any responsibility for uranium mining in the state. But by the end of the day, some were calling for a moratorium.


When it's come to cleaning up the mess the mining companies left behind, the state has done little. Most of the work, however far from finished, has gone to the federal government. But with the control of key permits in its hand, the state has a major role to play. And as the skyrocketing price of uranium draws ever more companies to the verge of a new mining boom in this corner of the state, locals are asking it to play that hand carefully.

Since the high spot prices that spurred three solid decades of uranium mining in northwest New Mexico came tumbling down in the early 1980s, the state's permitting offices have had little work. But in the past year, said the Mining and Minerals Division's Bill Brancard, they've received almost a dozen applications for exploratory drilling from companies suddenly interested in finding out exactly how much uranium their properties hold. The state has approved five, denied two, and is still reviewing four of the applications.

None of those permits allow for actual uranium mining. But they're a key step along the path to doing so, and they open the door to permits that would.

For most Church Rock area residents, that's close enough.

"Why do we need new mining when we've still got waste from the past?" asked Larry King, who's had a well on his family's grazing land along New Mexico Highway 566 shut down for high uranium levels.

King lives a few miles south of an underground plume or radioactive water the United Nuclear Corporation has been trying to clean up for more than 10 years, and just across the road from a site another company has its eyes on for new mining. The state delegation stopped by his home before driving north to see Nez.

"You're standing on high levels of radon," he told the group, gathered around his gate just off the highway.

"It's good you're only here for a few minutes. I drive through here 24-7," he said. "I'm thankful every day that I'm able to wake up and do my normal duties."

Soil removal

Nez has had a little more help. The U.S. Environment Department recently spent a month digging nearly 5,000 cubic yards of radium-rich soil out of his and his neighbors' yards. But even that effort has left behind levels dozens of times above the department's standards for a residential area just steps from his home, and the waste pile responsible for the contamination still sits 500 yards away. The EPA is negotiating with UNC, which left the pile behind, for a more extensive cleanup.

"The silver lining here is that there's a responsible party," said Chris Shuey, an environmental health specialist for the Southwest Research and Information Center, a nonprofit that's been helping communities redress the pollution from past uranium mining and to stop the industry's return.

But when the government can't find a responsible party like UNC to pay for the cleanup, if it's gone bankrupt for example, the bill goes to the government.

"And that's where the Legislature comes in," Shuey said.

The state currently has only $100,000 in its cleanup fund, said Brancard. It receives another $1.5 million a year in federal grants.

"So that's not going to cover very much," he said.

Accord to a state inventory, some 100 mines around New Mexico remain wholly unreclaimed. The EPA's cleanup around the Nez home alone cost more than $2 million.


So when there's no responsible party, most of the cleanup costs fall to the deeper pockets of the federal government. But with federal priorities stacked in favor of high population density, even that can prove hard to come by on and around the reservation.

Navajos and their advocates want the state to do more.

It was the state, after all, that permitted the UNC mine and mill that contaminated the area, Shuey noted. And it was the state, he added, that OK'd a UNC dam that gave way in 1979, leading to the largest release of radioactive material by volume in the country's history.

Before the state decides to clear the way for a new round of mining, Stephen Etsitty, the director of the Navajo Nation's Environmental Protection Agency, cautioned the legislators, "you need to think seriously about the costs. We haven't even come close to cleaning up the last round."

Residents asked the delegation for help to fund health studies. Kidney disease rates, already high among Navajos, reportedly spike around old mine sites, but the evidence is anecdotal.

"Throughout these 50 years ... there has never been a comprehensive health study in these communities," Shuey said. "It was just assumed that people are OK. As we hear every day, people are not OK."

At the end of the day, the committee sounded divided about what to do. Sens. John Ryan and David Ulibarri suggested letting the mining companies back in so that their profits and royalties to the state could help pay for the damages of past mining. Begaye said he'd rather see the companies clean up the mess they've created first.

Either way, Begaye expects to see much more legislation on the industry, whether proposing to slow it down or speed it up, come the Legislature's next session.

With so many mining companies already maneuvering for position around New Mexico's substantial uranium reserves, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom said, the state needs some sound policies to deal with them.

"This industry," she said, "is here."

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