Feds shoot down mining company’s ask to loosen cleanup standards at toxic uranium mine site

Environmental groups said they were surprised by the ruling, but expect the fight to continue over site in Cibola County.

By: - July 6, 2023 4:05 am

Crew members conduct passive groundwater sampling at the Homestake Mining Superfund Site near Milan, NM. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

In early June, federal regulators rejected a mining company’s proposal to loosen current cleanup standards at a former uranium mining operation in Western New Mexico. 

Beginning in 1958, The Homestake Mining Company operated a mine in Cibola County, just five miles outside the town of Milan. The consequences have carried 65 years into the future. In the early 2000s, one of the world’s largest mining companies, Barrick Gold, bought out Homestake.

The Environmental Protection Agency named it a Superfund site, meaning it’s one of the most toxic places in the U.S. and will take decades to clean up. 

The pollution

Homestake mined uranium at the site starting in 1958 under a license issued by the Atomic Energy Commission, winding down in the 1970s and shutting down completely in 1990. The mill was demolished in 1993. 

The uranium mining operations produced two toxic tailing (or waste) piles. These include one filled with approximately 21 million tons of radioactive material and another smaller pile of 1.2 million tons of radioactive material. Rain and snow soaking through the unlined pits seeped into groundwater below. Some of the toxic materials found in the groundwater include uranium, selenium, radioactive byproducts and heavy metals. 

In 2022, the company submitted an application to waive the standards to clean up contaminants from the groundwater – which the company set themselves at an earlier point. Their request was reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees nuclear clean-up operations and manages the site along with the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The decision by federal officials was “a bit of a shock” to local environment advocates, who said the federal regulatory commission often sides with industry in much of its decision-making.

“We’re thrilled that the NRC said no, this time around,” said Eric Jantz, a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “Now, it’s not a ‘permanent no,’ or a ‘forever no’ it is a ‘no for now.’’’

The company has some limited routes to get approval to try and loosen their cleanup requirements. They have the ability to submit a new application to the NRC, Jantz said, or they can make a request under a similar process at the EPA and then go back to the nuclear regulatory commission and make the request again. 

It’s an expensive and time-consuming process, but Homestake/Barrick Gold has deep pockets. 

“We’re talking about a subsidiary of a corporation that has basically unlimited resources at its disposal, and corporations being legal fictions, they have infinite lives,” said Jantz. “So unlimited resources, combined with infinite time. Who knows what’ll happen?”

The pollution still poses risks to residents, said Susan Gordon with nonprofit Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, which represents groups including people that live in Milan and surrounding communities.

The pollution has seeped into two local aquifers forcing some ranchers and residents to abandon wells. The pollution poses risks to the San Andres-Glorieta aquifer, which is connected under the ground. It’s a vital source of drinking water for the surrounding area. 

Gordon described how the cleanup process has slogged on for 40 years, despite repeated promises of faster cleanups from the company. Some of the tactics worsened the pollution.

“They flushed millions of gallons of water through these large tailings piles. The theory was that they were going to flush the uranium out,” Gordon said. “But it just made it worse because it continued to leak from underneath the unlined tailings piles.”

The current solution has been a “pump-and-treat” of the contaminated water, removing uranium and the other toxic metals through a reverse-osmosis process, pushing the water through a membrane and straining out the contaminants.

There’s a second treatment plant on site, called a Zeolite treatment plant, which also acts as a filter – although that has been used less, a 2021 EPA report found

In that same report, federal environmental protection inspectors noted that Homestake was not running either treatment plant to its full capacity, writing that the company provided “unclear” reasons as to why it wasn’t cleaning as much water as it could. The report further reported that “despite the limited capacity” the treatments removed more than 100 pounds of uranium.

During the 20th century, the Western portion of New Mexico was a hotbed for uranium production and mining – and vulnerable to its far-reaching contamination. The San Mateo Basin has more than 80 legacy mines and four former uranium mills, including the Homestake mine, an EPA review found. People in the region made a “death map,” tracking decades of sickness in family members and neighbors. 

Emails from Source NM to Homestake’s closure manager seeking comment remain unanswered.Jantz said even with the uncertainty of the next steps, the ruling was a bright spot. 

“This is a tension between sort of finance, corporate financial considerations, and basically, excess existential issues for entire communities,” Jantz said. “It’s encouraging that the NRC came down on the side of protecting those existential interests.”

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.