Uranium cleanup could benefit New Mexico and the tribes


SANTA FE, NM (AP) – For Democratic State Representative Wonda Johnson, the disastrous Church Rock uranium spill of 1979 is deeply personal.

She remembers standing on a porch as a child with her grandmother as they watched radioactive waste from a pierced mill pond flow into the Rio Puerco.

The powerful contaminants would kill their horses and cattle and poison the soil of their cornfield – one of the largest in the region – leaving it unable to grow anything again, Johnson said.

“My grandmother stood on the porch and wiped away her tears with her apron,” Johnson told two legislative panels on Wednesday. “And she said, ‘What am I going to leave for my grandchildren now? What kind of livelihood will we have? “

The Church Rock spill is only part of the vast uranium waste the mining industry has left in the Indian country, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. Today, some tribal advocates, state officials and lawmakers believe that cleaning up the waste would not only eliminate an environmental and health hazard, but create well-paying jobs in affected communities.

A report on the economic benefits of creating an industry to tackle uranium mining waste was presented to the state’s Indian affairs committee and the task force on rural economic opportunities at a hearing on Wednesday. .

The jobs generated by waste remediation would help replace jobs lost due to changes in the global energy market, including declining demand for uranium, according to the report.

McKinley, San Juan and Cibola counties – all with large indigenous populations – are among the hardest hit, with their unemployment rates all above the state average, he said.

The Office of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico wrote the report.

There are a number of potential sources of funding for this business, but one of the main ones could be a billion dollar settlement that the Environmental Protection Agency secured in 2015 from Tronox, a company that mined uranium around the Navajo Nation before declaring bankruptcy.

The billion dollars alone could generate 1,040 jobs over 10 years in this new sector, said Susan Gordon, coordinator of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, during the presentation.

“Workers who have lost their jobs could be quickly retrained to work in a remediation industry,” said Gordon, noting that many people who have been displaced have transferable skills.

The goal is to make environmental remediation the state’s 10th target industry, Gordon said, explaining that target industries are given special attention and higher priority.

The American West has about 15,000 abandoned uranium mines, of which about 550 are on Navajo lands, according to the report.

Church Rock is the best known and most massive source of uranium pollution.

It is the largest radioactive spill in US history, but received only a fraction of the publicity like the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant leak, which occurred several months earlier. – in large part because Church Rock is a rural Indigenous community, Gordon said.

About 1,100 tonnes of uranium tailings and 94 million gallons of toxic sewage polluted the Rio Puerco over 80 miles, Gordon said.

Church Rock is a vivid example of how long remediation takes, she said. In 1983, it was put on the national priority list for sites in need of the most urgent cleanup, and 38 years later, the federal government still hasn’t done much, she said.

“You can see how complicated it is to put a plan in place, and it still takes years for the shovels to hit the ground,” Gordon said.

Several lawmakers lamented what they called unjustifiable dragging feet in the treatment of uranium waste. A few agreed that creating a larger workforce dedicated to cleaning up trash can only help.

Representative Eliseo Lee Alcon, D-Milan, who has worked in uranium mines before, said he was puzzled as to why cleanup efforts are perpetually stalled, even though tens of millions of dollars federal funds are allocated to the remediation of various uranium waste sites.

“It’s just sitting there,” Alcon said. “We’re not doing anything.”

Senator Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, called for a vote to send letters to the EPA, the state’s Department of Economic Development and the New Mexico Bioscience Authority, asking them to consider what to do to create this industry, including funding. Both committees voted in favor of the letters.

After the hearing, Pinto said uranium is particularly dangerous for water, so cleaning it up is essential.

A recent “underground” study shows the Navajo Nation has a high rate of uranium-related cancer, said Representative Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, explaining that people were interviewed confidentially.

“It was overwhelming,” Caballero said of the results.

Johnson said the memory of her grandmother mourning the devastation of the Church Rock spill remained with her.

“That’s why this is such an important project for me,” she said.

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