The United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill site within the Navajo Nation in Church Rock, N.M.(Undated photo from the U.S. EPA)
State agencies can soon begin coordinating the cleanup of an estimated 1,100 uranium mines and mills in New Mexico, 500 of which are on or near the Navajo Nation.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday signed a bill empowering the state to orchestrate the effort, which has stumbled for years over jurisdictional challenges.
House Bill 164 will mobilize the Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to begin organizing, preparing and documenting remediation of the toxic sites, abandoned for decades and creating severe health hazards for people who live near them.
Legislation passed during the session in February allocates $350,000 to fund the program’s first-year operating expenses, including staff tasked directly with coordinating the cleanup. Additional costs going forward will be paid by more sources, like the Environmental Protection Agency or uranium mine settlements, to fund both cleanup and job training, according to the bill.
A sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces), said he hopes the bill will finally “move the needle” on a longtime scourge contaminating soil and 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.
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.
The bill also hopes to spur a new industry of uranium remediation in New Mexico.
Steinborn has said that it will take state government to coordinate the many different public and private parties who have a role to play in such a cleanup. And, importantly, it will take a large federal investment to fund it.
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