Hundreds of abandoned uranium mines in NM could be cleaned up if lawmakers approve legislation

By: - February 9, 2022 5:40 pm

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

A bill in the Legislature would mobilize state government to finally clean up a reported 1,100 uranium mining, milling and drilling sites that are contaminating state and tribal lands and waters.

The legislation would direct the New Mexico Environment Department to coordinate efforts to clean and reclaim the sites. It’s a matter complicated by overlapping jurisdictions and mine ownership that’s difficult to trace, according to a report from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico. 

Navajo Nation pushes for radioactive waste remnants to be fully removed

The bill, scheduled to be heard Wednesday night in committee, also touts the potential economic benefits of training and hiring a new workforce for remediation of the radioactive material. The report cited a possible allocation of $1 billion controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup on and near Navajo Nation land in New Mexico and Arizona. 

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

Sponsors are seeking $350,000 to fund the program’s first-year operating expenses, though they say they hope the state could find money elsewhere, like the EPA or other uranium mine settlements, to fund site remediation and job training, according to the bill. 

A report compiled by the independent Legislative Finance Committee found that the State Land Office has identified extensive uranium contamination on state trust land. There are also more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on or near the Navajo Nation, remnants of a time when nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore was extracted between 1944 and 1986, according to the EPA. 

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces), Rep. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland), Rep. Wonda Johnson (D-Rehoboth) and Rep. Debra Sariñana (D-Albuquerque).

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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. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.