A warning sign outside the Church Rock uranium mine near the Navajo community at Red Water Pond Road, about 10 miles east of the town of Gallup, New Mexico. (Photo by Eli Cahan / Capital & Main)
Even though the state Legislature passed a uranium mine bill that was signed into law by the governor, it’ll likely be years before the state actually begins to clean things up. More money is needed for the effort, but because the early stages of work are moving slowly, officials don’t expect to ask for additional funding in the next legislative session.
Uranium mining boomed in New Mexico from the 1950s to the 1980s, before there were many state and federal environmental regulations in place. The United States government used most of the uranium to develop nuclear weapons. Once demand dropped, many companies abandoned their mines, despite numerous environmental and health risks the sites pose.
The mines that dot the landscape have been poisoning people for decades, exposing them to radioactivity. Many of the sites are concentrated in northwestern New Mexico and on Navajo Nation, and they expose people to radiation. Groundwater contamination means people can ingest excessive levels of saline, nitrate and uranium via their drinking water. Uranium can cause severe health consequences, even for infants after maternal exposure, studies have shown.
So this year, legislators unanimously approved a cleanup bill in the Roundhouse, and it went to the governor’s desk, where she signed it in March. But not much has happened in the nine months since it’s been a law.
State environment and resource officials presented to the Legislature’s Radioactive & Hazardous Materials Committee on Monday about the ongoing work to make the intent of House Bill 164 a reality.
The legislation requires the N.M. Environment Department to lead reclamation efforts, working with other state agencies to develop a plan and a timeline. But that can’t even begin until an NMED coordinator is hired.
Jonas Armstrong is the director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives within NMED. He said the department conducted interviews in October for the coordinator.
Spokesperson Matthew Maez said NMED is in the process of issuing an offer letter to a chosen candidate. He said work will accelerate when the position is filled, which will hopefully happen in December.
Other state cleanup roles
The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department filled its own uranium coordinator position in October.
NMED is also looking for someone to fill another uranium cleanup position. Interviews will be conducted for a water resources professional in the Ground Water Quality Bureau’s Mining Environmental Compliance Section in the next few weeks, Maez said.
Armstrong said once the coordinator is hired, they’ll figure out if existing funding will be enough, look at other programs to find good remediation plans and determine how to get more resources that are needed, either through federal appropriation or lawsuits — though he didn’t verify if that would be suing mining companies or the federal government.
But that’ll take time too. The department likely won’t ask for any additional state funding in the upcoming legislative session because there won’t be enough information collected yet on the plan. Armstrong said they anticipate requesting more money in 2024.
“A lot of this is strategic planning work as is laid out in the bill and will take some time,” Armstrong said.
He mentioned the settlement that New Mexico reached with the U.S. government after the Gold King Mine spill when federal contractors unleashed nearly 1 million pounds of heavy metals spill into a watershed in the state in 2015. He said that at least required the federal government to establish a point of contact that can be used for this uranium mine cleanup work, too.
John Rhoderick, director of NMED’s Water Protection Division, said the mines aren’t only on state land, so many tribal, state and federal agencies are involved in this effort, which adds to the complexity.
“If it was simple, it would’ve been done a long time ago,” he said.
Who foots the bill?
Rhoderick said just figuring out what kind of remediation strategies will work is a huge task. While not much information has been gathered yet, he said the department knows the state will need money to get cleanup moving.
“A big part of what we’re doing with this first year is evaluating whether the tools we have in the toolbox are sufficient, or whether we need additional authorities, whether we need additional tools,” Rhoderick said. “What we know is we need additional money.”
Fixing the messes will be costly. Officials from the N.M. Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department reiterated multiple times at the meeting that one of the big challenges is finding the money to cover the expenses.
The governor, in April, approved sending $410,000 to NMED and $180,000 to EMNRD for overseeing the cleanup.
Rhoderick said it’s up to the mining companies and federal government — the entity that needed the uranium — to pay for the messes they left behind. Jerry Schoeppner, director of EMNRD’s Mining and Minerals Division, added that one of the first things to get done with the cleanup coordinator is making sure responsible parties are paying.
“The responsibility of our state agencies — New Mexico Environment Department, and Mining and Minerals — is to hold those entities accountable and coordinate the work to protect not only our current people here in New Mexico but also future generations,” Rhoderick said.
New Mexicans shouldn’t be the ones paying for this, Rhoderick said. But Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon (D-Milan) questioned that, since the state made money off of the uranium mining. Rhoderick said not all potential entities to be held responsible have been identified, so he can’t address the issue definitely yet.
“The intent is not to leave any rock unturned,” Rhoderick said.
Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) sponsored the cleanup bill. He said the law doesn’t prevent New Mexico from helping cover the costs.
“Should we find ourselves with an extra billion dollars and want to put it into remediation, it would not be the wrong answer,” Steinborn said. “It would not be the wrong thing to do.”
However, responsible parties should be paying whenever possible, he said.
Schoeppner pointed out that not everyone who left the waste behind will pay for it now.
“We know there’s a handful of viable responsible parties still out there, but very few,” Schoeppner said. “Most of them have since blown away, gone away.”
But the state government isn’t even sure of where all of the abandoned mine sites are or exactly how many remain. So that’ll have to be figured out first, Rhoderick said.
“First is the scope. Then we look at cost estimates,” Rhoderick said. “Then we’re looking for who’s going to pay for those. Our goal is for it not to be New Mexicans.”
Using a database that’s over a decade old
What the state knows about where abandoned mines are is based on information that EMNRD put together in 2008.
The department identified about 260 legacy sites that produced at least 5,000 pounds of uranium before they were deserted.
There are also about 450 other sites that didn’t produce quite that much uranium and didn’t make it into the database, Schoeppner said. He said there needs to be more research done on the risks those mines still present.
“There could be some environmental issues there. We need to dig into those,” he said. “Those are really the unknowns at this point.”
He said this database is really a starting point, and the department plans to update it.
The federal government could also help find more sites. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Defense-Related Uranium Mines program verifies locations of mines that were used in producing nuclear weapons. Clint Chisler with the EMNRD’s Mining and Minerals Division said that federal work is ongoing to assess defense mines in New Mexico.
But when Steinborn asked if the feds will go beyond assessment to actually cleaning up the sites, Chisler said no reclamation work is planned.
Still, Steinborn said he’s glad the state agencies at least are finally working together to make uranium mining cleanup a priority.
He encouraged the state officials to follow up with New Mexico’s federal delegation to get funding for remediation projects. He said he has a talk soon with Sen. Martin Heinrich about where dollars could come from.
“This is going to be expensive work,” he said.
Cleanup is also a priority for Secretary of the Interior Department Deb Haaland, who oversees 500 million acres of public land and has talked about her own experiences with uranium causing health issues across Laguna Pueblo. She’s said people who have suffered from contamination should be compensated, though many still haven’t been.
“This has been an issue that we haven’t seen enough movement on,” Steinborn said.
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