Federal program — with no money attached — created to tackle uranium mine cleanup

By: - March 8, 2022 5:00 am

Open pit uranium mine in Grants, N.M., around 1968. (Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Energy )

The Department of Interior was ordered just months ago to create a program to address the longstanding problem of abandoned hardrock mines across the country, including uranium mines abandoned in New Mexico. 

The new program comes from an amendment to the bipartisan infrastructure package, which President Joe Biden signed Nov. 15 of last year. 

Sponsored by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), the legislation gave the Interior Department 90 days to set up a mine cleanup effort — putting the deadline at Feb. 15. 

But the $1 trillion infrastructure plan did not spend any money on the cleanup of abandoned hardrock mines, which dot much of the West and contaminate nearby water and soil with uranium, lead, silver, iron and other metals. Uranium mines are linked to cancer, kidney problems and other chronic conditions for people who live near them.  

“Sen. Heinrich is working to secure that funding stream now that the program is being established,” said Heinrich’s spokesperson Aaron Morales. Under the senator’s amendment, $3 billion can be spent on the program down the line, Morales explained, but it hasn’t been allocated yet.

That’s despite an earlier attempt by Heinrich to pull down $16 billion to clean up the mines. 

In June, Heinrich and other senators announced another amendment to the infrastructure bill — still being debated at the time — that would have put $200 billion toward the restoration of so-called “natural infrastructure.” That meant $87 billion for wildfire and drought resilience, and $55 billion to protect against hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes, for example.

The amendment also included $16 billion for “cleanup, reclamation, and restoration of abandoned coal, hard rock, and uranium mines … on federal, state, tribal, and private lands.” 

But the money wasn’t part of the final package signed by Biden.

Morales said Heinrich is still “very pleased” with how many of his proposals made their way into the infrastructure bill, even if the mine cleanup money did not. 

Even without the cash, Morales said the program gets the cleanup started and that the senator hopes funding will follow soon.

“Getting this program established and set up is an important, necessary first step to clean up these mines,” Heinrich’s office said in a statement to Source New Mexico. “Sen. Heinrich believes there needs to be a dedicated funding stream to go towards hardrock mine reclamation efforts — including uranium mines — and is continuing his efforts to secure funding for the program.”

The Interior Department’s new program requires staff to “inventory, assess, decommission, reclaim,” and remediate abandoned hardrock mine land.

An Interior Department spokesperson did not respond before press time to a request for information about how the new cleanup program is going so far. This story will be updated if the department responds.

If eventually funded, Heinrich’s plan would give 50% of the money to state and tribal governments, while the other half would be devoted to cleanup on federal lands. 

The funds would go toward land and water that has been affected by past hardrock mining. It also will be spent on cleanup in instances when the Interior Department determines there is no one who can be held liable for the abandoned mine. That is commonly the case for uranium mines in New Mexico, where a boom in uranium consumption led to short-lived, unaccountable mines opening and closing before their presence could be documented. 

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) has previously said a huge impediment to finally fixing up the uranium mess in New Mexico is lack of federal funding. The state Legislature earlier this year passed — and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed — a bill empowering the state to begin coordinating the cleanup. 

But the measure only funds the state program’s $350,000 administrative costs for a year. Federal funds or settlements with companies who are responsible for the mines would cover subsequent years.

A report from the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research said the full remediation of abandoned mines and mills here would mean potentially “infinite” cost and scope of work. 

There are an estimated 1,100 abandoned uranium mines in New Mexico, including 500 near the Navajo Nation. 

Many of the mines are abandoned and their owners difficult to trace. New Mexico was once the biggest producer of uranium in the country, providing the material both to the federal government and private energy companies.

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 newborns, 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.

$2.8 million for coal mine cleanup announced

While the uranium program at the Department of Interior is still getting set up and awaiting funding, a state agency announced Monday that Interior is sending $2.829 million to New Mexico for the cleanup of abandoned coal mines here. 

The money will be spent over the course of three years on things like creating an inventory of abandoned coal mines, plus addressing stormwater flooding in Madrid and coal fires near Gallup. 

The infrastructure package reauthorized a fee on coal production to fund the cleanup. The fee has been extended for 13 more years, according to a news release from the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. 

“New Mexico has a long history of reclaiming areas impacted by mining back to beneficial use,” said EMNRD Mining and Minerals Division Director Jerry Schoeppner in a news release. “Mining a variety of minerals is important to our nation’s economy, and it is important that we do it in a responsible manner that leaves as little of a mark as possible on our beautiful landscapes.”



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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.