A problem of ‘infinite scope and cost’

What will it take to finally get uranium cleanup done? Here are three big problems the state faces just in getting started

By: - February 22, 2022 5:00 am

This is a map of various jurisdictions and abandoned mines and mills in the uranium-rich “checkerboard” region of the state between McKinley and Cibola counties. Authors of a recent study on uranium mine cleanup included it to show the complexity of the challenge. (Courtesy UNM BBER)

A bill invigorating New Mexico government to coordinate the cleanup of abandoned uranium mines passed both chambers of the Legislature this session, but the state will confront a decades-old problem that experts say has a potentially “infinite” scope and cost. 

Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) sponsored the “Uranium Mine Cleanup” bill, one that will mobilize state agencies to begin organizing, preparing and documenting remediation of an estimated 1,100 uranium mine and mill sites in New Mexico. About 500 of them are on or near the Navajo Nation.

The bill creates a statute that puts the state in the driver’s seat for coordinating the many different governments and groups who will be necessary to get a wide-scale effort up and running. 

But the measure doesn’t come anywhere close to funding such an effort. Steinborn said he hopes those billions of dollars will come largely from the federal government. 

“I visited a uranium mine tailing site 13, 14 years ago, and I haven’t seen the needle move almost at all,” Steinborn told Source New Mexico on Friday. “And finally, it kind of culminated in this bill.” 

In addition to charging the state’s Environment Department with planning and organizing, the bill also directs the Economic Development and Workforce Solutions Departments to establish uranium reclamation as a target for growth and job creation, plus build a repository mapping all mine and mill sites.

The bill and state budget allocated $350,000 to fund the program’s first-year operating expenses, including staff tasked directly with coordinating the cleanup. Sponsors hope additional costs going forward will be paid through other sources, like through the Environmental Protection Agency or other uranium mine settlements, to fund site remediation and job training, according to the bill. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not yet indicated whether she’ll sign the bill, though Steinborn said he’d be surprised if she does not. A spokesperson said Friday the governor will “thoroughly review all passed legislation as it comes up to the Governor’s Office for action.” 

But even if she does sign it, that’s just the beginning of a long and difficult journey to uranium remediation in New Mexico. The state will confront a challenge that has bedeviled governments since at least the 1980s here, according to a 117-page report authored by the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research in the fall of 2020. There have been other pushes to address the toxic sites by state, tribal and federal agencies.

There is still a nearly endless amount of work still to be done.

– BEBR report by Rose Rohrer, Jeffrey Mitchell and John Betak

“Funding is neither limitless, nor is it predictable, but with greater cooperation and involvement of the state, remediation work could become more streamlined throughout New Mexico,” the authors wrote.

A 100-mile band between Albuquerque and Gallup produced more uranium for the nation’s defense needs than any other area in the country between the 1940s and 1980s. The state produced more than 163,000 tons of uranium ore in that period, according to a report by New Mexico Tech. 

When demand dropped for various reasons, mining companies left, and they left a mess. The remnants are today contaminating soil and drinking water for neighbors of the abandoned mines and mills.

An ongoing study on the Navajo Nation of pregnant women and their kids beginning in 2010 found elevated levels of uranium and arsenic in infants, and it found a high prevalence of language disorders in children. Uranium contamination is also linked with cancer, kidney failure and other health complications. In December 2021, researchers released a new paper based on the ongoing study that found that negative health effects from maternal exposure to metals like uranium, arsenic and lead can start as early as ages 10 to 13 months. 

The report from UNM said there is a potential to make uranium remediation one of the biggest industries in the state. A $1 billion settlement for cleanup currently controlled by the EPA, for example, could create 1,040 jobs for 10 years at an average salary of $54,663 a year. 

“This is the tip of an iceberg – future settlements could generate far more,” the report authors said in a presentation to lawmakers in September 2021, a presentation that partially informed the bill the Legislature approved. 

But to get there, the state and other governments will have a lot to overcome. 

Now that the state has put its hand up to take on the monumental task, below are three of the major challenges it will face just in getting started, according to interviews, committee hearings and reports: 

Churchrock mine uranium
The Northeast Church Rock Mine is a former uranium mine about 17 miles northeast of Gallup, N.M. in the Pinedale Chapter of the Navajo Nation. From 1967 to 1982, the mine was operated by the United Nuclear Corporation, a company owned by General Electric. (Photo from the Environmental Protection Agency)

Overlapping jurisdictions

One major complication of the uranium mine cleanup traces its roots to an effort to assimilate Navajo people in the 1880s.

Under the Dawes Act, individual Navajo households were given allotments of land to encourage them to become subsistence farmers. The land was given to individual Navajo people instead of to the Navajo Nation, which would have made it part of the land controlled by the tribal government. The Dawes Act allotments showed up primarily alongthe eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, all of which is in New Mexico. 

Since then, many of those plots have become “fractionated,” which means the hundreds or thousands of descendants of the original allottee all have equal rights to the parcel. In some cases, original ownership is unknown.

Any land not given to Navajo households was deemed “surplus” and sold or transferred, sometimes to local or state government — or to private ownership. 

Taken together, much of the land still being contaminated by abandoned mines is on what locals call the “checkerboard” of owners and jurisdictions, complicating any cleanup efforts, according to the report. 

The UNM report authors included a map of different jurisdictions and owners overlaid with abandoned mines to show just how dizzyingly complex the mine cleanup landscape is today, about 150 years after the Dawes Act. 

This is a map of various jurisdictions and abandoned mines and mills in the uranium-rich “checkerboard” region of the state between McKinley and Cibola counties. The dots are abandoned mines and mills; the squares are differing jurisdictions. Authors of a recent study on uranium mine cleanup included it to show the complexity of the challenge. (Courtesy UNM BBER)

Different laws in different jurisdictions make remediation difficult to organize, the report authors wrote. The Navajo Nation’s ban of uranium mining in 2005 also adds another complication: Even if radioactive material is collected, it can’t be transported through the Navajo Nation without special permission. 

The overlapping and competing interests of the “checkerboard” show why coordination is required — coordination that has so far been lacking, according to the report. 

“No single entity or government can tackle this problem alone,” the authors wrote.

Mines with no owners on land with no owners

The uranium market was volatile between the 1940s and 1980s after the federal government stopped buying so much of it and the nuclear industry went through several booms and busts, according to the UNM report.

This spurred several eras of “feverish” mining endeavors, many of which took place in New Mexico. These small mining companies did not often exist for long enough or adequately document their ownership. 

“Mining companies frequently changed hands, leases were transferred or allowed to expire, and the records of historic responsibility for cleaning up a mine site were not well-kept,” the authors wrote.

A 2014 federal Department of Energy report found 247 abandoned mines without clear ownership in New Mexico. Many of them are on federal land, but others are on “land of unknown ownership,” according to the UNM report, referring to the “checkerboard” plots. 

Steinborn called the ownership issue one of the biggest challenges to getting started in fixing a problem everyone has known is a problem for decades. Finding parties to pay up would help get the process started. 

“We have so many abandoned sites where there’s no owner or any responsible party. There’s no company to hold accountable. There’s no landowner to hold accountable,” he said. “These were sites that popped up because of the vast quantity of uranium that our state has, … and then they were shut down without being required to remediate.”

Uranium mine cleanup approved unanimously by NM House, now faces Senate in session’s last days

The EPA in 2011 established a so-called “PRP search team,” which is supposed to track down “potentially responsible parties” behind various environmental disasters. But it’s limited to various Superfund and other priority sites. It excludes most uranium sites. 

The bill passed by the Legislature requires the state Environment Department to develop and update a database of mine and mill sites to include, at a minimum, “the location of uranium mine and mill sites, information about the ownership and legal jurisdiction of each site, and each site’s cleanup status.”

Steinborn said while finding a responsible party is important, it’s unclear whether they’d be able to pay to fully remediate or restore damaged lands and waters. And the federal government was a major customer driving demand for the extraction of uranium ore, so it should bear a burden as well, he said. 

“To the extent that there’s a responsible party out there, they absolutely should pay up,” Steinborn said. “But the fact is the federal government obviously was a big customer. It’s like a lot of things where environmental damages and health effects might not have been fully known at the time.” 

Open pit uranium mine in Grants, N.M., around 1968. The shovel gives an idea of scale. (Photo is from the U.S. Department of Energy and is Public Domain)

Who will pay and when? 

Even if a mine owner is found, that doesn’t mean they immediately agree to pay for cleanup, according to the UNM report. They can point to the federal government’s role in creating the uranium market in the first place. It was the biggest buyer of uranium between 1947 and 1973. 

So the potential exists for lawsuits in some of these liability disputes, according to the UNM report, which can delay the start of cleanup. 

“Litigation can slow remediation efforts, creating an uncertain timeline for actual cleanup to begin,” the authors wrote. “Even with funding available, the process of addressing uranium mine sites can take decades. These delays make job creation and retention difficult, and the continued living conditions of those near the mine sites unacceptable.”

State Rep. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland) said at a recent hearing that the federal government has been slow to respond even when money is available. He said he hopes the legislation will give the feds a “prod” to get going on major cleanups. Uranium tailings continue to contaminate an area of his district near Shiprock, he said. 

“The federal government is really really slow in getting anything started,” he said at a committee meeting Feb. 9. 

The UNM report authors conclude there is money from existing or future settlements to potentially propel remediation. But it’s going to take more than case-by-case settlements to finally get the type of full-scale cleanup required to help communities affected by the mines, Steinborn said. 

“We have to get the federal government to write a check, a big check, to clean up all these sites,” he said. 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.