MAC: Mines and Communities

Residents rip off kid gloves

Published by MAC on 2007-05-31

Residents rip off kid gloves

By Lia Martin

31st May 2007

Residents fight for rights against uranium companies

CIBOLA COUNTY - It is possible that May 30, 2007 might mark a major milestone in fighting water contamination caused by a decade of uranium mining in northern New Mexico, after a handful of citizens rallied together to become rebels for a cause.

"I want you to take this message back to your bosses," Candace Head Dylla said during that meeting on Wednesday night. "Our community is like a big ball that you keep throwing back and forth to each other. We are powerless, out of control. That's how you make people radical."

Residents from Broadview Acres, Felice Acres, Murray Acres, Valle Verde, Pleasant Valley and other communities north of Grants attended their fourth meeting this year called by multiple agencies - federal and state - who are trying to be the answer to a 30-year problem with well water contamination in these neighborhoods.

The culprits, according to neighbors, are the uranium mining operations such as Homestake, and other mills, which had operated up the river from the Milan area.

By 1961, miners familiar with the history, say that the New Mexico Health Service told Homestake they were polluting the aquifer, and warned them.

But, back in those days, regulations involving uranium mill operations were little to none. At the meeting, it was discussed that the Atomic Energy Commission, which was later replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the New Mexico Environment Department, may have had a deal with the mines, or maybe the regulatory protocol was deficient.

According to miners and their families, Homestake had been storing wastewater from the processing mill in an unlined pond, which old-timers say was directly above the Alluvial aquifer. They think it seeped into the various aquifer bands, which means it had infiltrated the water system used for drinking for both livestock and human consumption.

It was not until 1976 that they were approached by state environment department officials and warned that the water in their wells was not safe to drink.

In spite of two occasions where water samples have been collected and studied by scientists, no progress has been made to clean the area of contaminants.

However, in recent years, because of time passing and interruption of uranium milling, some cleansing seems to have taken place in some aquifer bands, but not in others.

This last study was brought back to the table this week.

Andy Dudley, who is a non-regulatory environmental health scientist, told residents that out of the 2005 well sample studies, there were 35 wells sampled. Out of those wells, there were 28 wells using Village of Milan water, and six owners using their wells as a primary source. In those six wells, Dudley said, two wells exceeded the uranium MCL safety requirements, which were 39.5 parts per billion and 46.7 parts per billion of uranium.

In the 2006 samples, Dudley said that 10 wells exceeded the uranium MCL safety requirements. He said one well exceeded the uranium MCL safety requirement by 265 parts per billion.

And, in four wells, there was selenium in the water samples, which were 101 parts per billion above the MCL safety requirement.

"The dose makes the poison," Dudley told the residents. "All the concentrations are going down except for a few in the middle Chinle (aquifer)."

New Mexico Environment Department officials say that they are in a Catch-22 situation with the Environmental Protection Agency, which are a federal organization, uranium companies and politicians.

They say they are doing everything they can to help, but that there is little to do when funding is drying up to test the wells they need to test before approaching any of the uranium mines where they can lay the blame.

"To tell a company that you need to clean up," David Mayerson with the state environmental department, "you have to have your ducks in a row."

Dana Behar, also with the Environment Department, agreed with Mayerson.

"We recognize this is your community. I hope we can bridge the gap," Behar said. "We can't arbitrarily set standards. Any action we take can be challenged by the companies."

Resident Art Gebeau seemed shocked by what he was hearing.

"You're a hired gun," Gebeau said. "You saying that this fund is only politics?"

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