Uranium mine cleanup approved unanimously by NM House, now faces Senate in session’s last days

By: - February 13, 2022 1:55 pm
Churchrock mine uranium

The Northeast Church Rock Mine is a former uranium mine about 17 miles northeast of Gallup, N.M. in the Pinedale Chapter of the Navajo Nation. From 1967 to 1982, the mine was operated by the United Nuclear Corporation, a company owned by General Electric. (Photo from the Environmental Protection Agency)

The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a bill on a 64-0 vote that would mobilize the state government to coordinate the cleanup of abandoned uranium mines.

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

The bill was one of several passed unanimously without debate on the House floor in a flurry Saturday night. An identical version is awaiting action in the Senate. 

If enacted, the law would direct agencies to organize remediation of a reported 1,100 uranium mining, milling and drilling sites that are contaminating state and tribal lands and waters. Potential health effects near abandoned mines including lung cancer from inhaling radioactive dust and bone cancer, and reduced kidney function from drinking water, according to the Environment Protection Agency

This legislation and funding allows us to begin to fix the problem,” said Camila Feibelman, director of the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club, at a hearing last week. 

The cleanup is 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. 

The bill also touts the potential economic benefits of training and hiring a new workforce for dealing with the radioactive material. The report cited a possible allocation of $1 billion controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency dangerous hazards and toxins left by mining companies on and near Navajo Nation land in New Mexico and Arizona. 

Navajo Nation pushes for radioactive waste remnants to be fully removed

But the federal government has been slow to get going, said Rep. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland). An abandoned mine in nearby Church Rock, for example, has been declared a superfund site since the early 1980s. Allison said hopes the state bill will give the feds a “prod” to get going on major clean-ups. Uranium tailings continue to contaminate an area of his district near Shiprock, he said. 

The federal government is really really slow in getting anything started,” he said at a committee meeting Feb. 9. 

In addition to charging the state’s Environment Department with coordinating the efforts, the bill also directs the Economic Development and Workforce Solutions Departments to establish uranium reclamation as a target for growth and job creation, 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 said they hope the state could find money elsewhere, like through 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. 

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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.