Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The New Mexico Environment Department has convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in cleanup of old uranium mines in the San Mateo Creek Basin of northwest New Mexico.
The EPA will work with three mining companies – United Nuclear Corp., Homestake Mining Company of California and Rio Algom Mining – to identify groundwater impacts and cleanup solutions in McKinley and Cibola counties.
The region was a hotbed of uranium mining from the 1950s to the 1990s.
“One of the New Mexico Environment Department’s top priorities is making meaningful progress on languishing legacy contamination sites,” NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said in a statement. “Under my tenure, the Environment Department will aggressively push for accelerated remediation while standing firm against any new contamination. New Mexicans expect and deserve nothing less.”
In 2009, NMED tests of private water wells in the region showed high levels of uranium and selenium. Those chemicals can cause cancer and organ damage if ingested or inhaled.
United Nuclear Corp. once operated the Church Rock Mine north of Gallup. In 1979, a dam collapsed at the mine, releasing radioactive metals and millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into the Rio Puerco.
According to the EPA, there are water wells near the Church Rock site, but “nearby residents generally have used bottled water.” The agency has classified the region as a Superfund site, a designation that comes with money for cleanup.
In October, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall chaired a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in Albuquerque to examine radiation exposure from legacy mines. Udall has sponsored legislation to compensate post-1971 uranium miners and nuclear radiation “downwinders” in New Mexico.
At the hearing, Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Area office of the Indian Health Service, announced that a federal study had found a quarter of Navajo women had elevated levels of uranium in their blood.
“We do see generations of Native American families suffering from increased rates of cancers,” Christensen said.
The EPA action will require the mining companies to make initial payments of $700,000 for response costs.
The companies must also submit groundwater test results and create an enforceable cleanup timeline.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.