look at mining's impact
By Zsombor Peter, Gallup
CHURCH ROCK — The dozen state senators
and representatives clustered together in Teddy Nez's
patchy yard last week knew they were standing on dangerous
The delegation from the New Mexico Indian
Affairs Committee, came for a first-hand look at how
Navajos were living with the fallout from decades of
uranium mining. But when their guides pointed out that
the very dirt beneath their feet was still radiating
high levels of radium, a few laughed nervously. Others
shuffled inconspicuously onto safer soil.
Committee Chairman Ray Begaye believes
the daylong hearing in Church Rock helped open some
"I don't think the committee members
realized they were part of the process," he said.
Before visiting the Nez home that morning,
some committee members were disavowing any responsibility
for uranium mining in the state. But by the end of the
day, some were calling for a moratorium.
When it's come to cleaning up the
mess the mining companies left behind, the state has
done little. Most of the work, however far from finished,
has gone to the federal government. But with the control
of key permits in its hand, the state has a major role
to play. And as the skyrocketing price of uranium draws
ever more companies to the verge of a new mining boom
in this corner of the state, locals are asking it to
play that hand carefully.
Since the high spot prices that spurred
three solid decades of uranium mining in northwest New
Mexico came tumbling down in the early 1980s, the state's
permitting offices have had little work. But in the
past year, said the Mining and Minerals Division's Bill
Brancard, they've received almost a dozen applications
for exploratory drilling from companies suddenly interested
in finding out exactly how much uranium their properties
hold. The state has approved five, denied two, and is
still reviewing four of the applications.
None of those permits allow for actual
uranium mining. But they're a key step along the path
to doing so, and they open the door to permits that
For most Church Rock area residents,
that's close enough.
"Why do we need new mining when
we've still got waste from the past?" asked Larry
King, who's had a well on his family's grazing land
along New Mexico Highway 566 shut down for high uranium
King lives a few miles south of an underground
plume or radioactive water the United Nuclear Corporation
has been trying to clean up for more than 10 years,
and just across the road from a site another company
has its eyes on for new mining. The state delegation
stopped by his home before driving north to see Nez.
"You're standing on high levels
of radon," he told the group, gathered around his
gate just off the highway.
"It's good you're only here for
a few minutes. I drive through here 24-7," he said.
"I'm thankful every day that I'm able to wake up
and do my normal duties."
Nez has had a little more help.
The U.S. Environment Department recently spent a month
digging nearly 5,000 cubic yards of radium-rich soil
out of his and his neighbors' yards. But even that effort
has left behind levels dozens of times above the department's
standards for a residential area just steps from his
home, and the waste pile responsible for the contamination
still sits 500 yards away. The EPA is negotiating with
UNC, which left the pile behind, for a more extensive
"The silver lining here is that
there's a responsible party," said Chris Shuey,
an environmental health specialist for the Southwest
Research and Information Center, a nonprofit that's
been helping communities redress the pollution from
past uranium mining and to stop the industry's return.
But when the government can't find a
responsible party like UNC to pay for the cleanup, if
it's gone bankrupt for example, the bill goes to the
"And that's where the Legislature
comes in," Shuey said.
The state currently has only $100,000
in its cleanup fund, said Brancard. It receives another
$1.5 million a year in federal grants.
"So that's not going to cover very
much," he said.
Accord to a state inventory, some 100
mines around New Mexico remain wholly unreclaimed. The
EPA's cleanup around the Nez home alone cost more than
So when there's no responsible party, most of the cleanup
costs fall to the deeper pockets of the federal government.
But with federal priorities stacked in favor of high
population density, even that can prove hard to come
by on and around the reservation.
Navajos and their advocates want the
state to do more.
It was the state, after all, that permitted
the UNC mine and mill that contaminated the area, Shuey
noted. And it was the state, he added, that OK'd a UNC
dam that gave way in 1979, leading to the largest release
of radioactive material by volume in the country's history.
Before the state decides to clear the
way for a new round of mining, Stephen Etsitty, the
director of the Navajo Nation's Environmental Protection
Agency, cautioned the legislators, "you need to
think seriously about the costs. We haven't even come
close to cleaning up the last round."
Residents asked the delegation for help
to fund health studies. Kidney disease rates, already
high among Navajos, reportedly spike around old mine
sites, but the evidence is anecdotal.
"Throughout these 50 years ...
there has never been a comprehensive health study in
these communities," Shuey said. "It was just
assumed that people are OK. As we hear every day, people
are not OK."
At the end of the day, the committee
sounded divided about what to do. Sens. John Ryan and
David Ulibarri suggested letting the mining companies
back in so that their profits and royalties to the state
could help pay for the damages of past mining. Begaye
said he'd rather see the companies clean up the mess
they've created first.
Either way, Begaye expects to see much
more legislation on the industry, whether proposing
to slow it down or speed it up, come the Legislature's
With so many mining companies already
maneuvering for position around New Mexico's substantial
uranium reserves, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom said, the
state needs some sound policies to deal with them.
"This industry," she said,