Open pit uranium mine in Grants, N.M., around 1968. (Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Energy )
Two state agencies will soon hire uranium mine reclamation coordinators, part of the state’s new effort to reinvigorate the cleanup of hundreds of abandoned mines that continue to poison residents here.
This legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that puts the state in the driver’s seat of an effort to wrangle the many different groups and governments with a stake in the mine cleanup. The measure also paid for two positions to get that effort going, with the hope that the federal government will ultimately step in and pay up going forward.
One of the new jobs will be advertised in early August and will pay between $67,000 and $108,000. The other job will be advertised sometime this fall and will pay between $58,000 and $97,000.
The law aims to mobilize state agencies to organize, prepare and document remediation of an estimated 1,100 uranium mine and mill sites in New Mexico. About 500 of them are on or near the Navajo Nation.
On Monday, Susan Gordon, director of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, told an interim legislative committee in Vanderwagen, N.M., that if done right, uranium cleanup could become a major industry. A $1 billion settlement for cleanup currently controlled by the EPA, for example, could create 1,040 jobs for 10 years at an average salary of $54,663 a year.
Gordon said she spoke with state agencies ahead of her presentation, and they were ready to get started.
“Both agencies are really excited about having additional staff,” she said. “They both said to me, it’s long overdue. They’re ready to go as quickly as they can with it.”
One of the people hired will be tasked with coordinating uranium mine reclamation with other state and federal agencies and tribes, nations and pueblos, according to a spokesperson for the New Mexico Environment Department. That official will also be in charge of strategic planning, data management and other responsibilities.
The second hiree will take on a “highly technical” job that entails supporting cleanup and enforcement of mine remediation, the spokesperson said.
The state is vastly underfunded to actually clean up the mines, lawmakers and others have acknowledged. A study from the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research said a full remediation could be a problem of potentially “infinite scope and cost.”
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 for uranium dropped, 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 infants, 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.
The federal government, which was the biggest customer for the radioactive material, will need to fund the full cleanup effort, Gordon said.
“The state of New Mexico needs to be much better coordinated and reach out and be responsible for their piece of it,” Gordon said. “But, you know, the money issue – and we’re talking billions – is still out there.”
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