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Owners of the Mount Taylor Uranium Mine near Grants have informed the state they will cease operations and begin cleanup.
The underground mine is in the Grants Mineral Belt, which has some of the nation’s richest natural uranium deposits and a history of contamination.
“Closure of the Mount Taylor mine is heartening news for this very sacred and unique landscape,” said Laura Watchempino, an Acoma Pueblo member of the Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment. “We hope that the healing of this site can now take place with effective cleanup measures designed to restore the underground aquifers, and remove all contaminated waste piles and infrastructure.”
There are currently no producing uranium mines in New Mexico, according to Bill Brancard, general counsel for the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
The 148-acre Mount Taylor mine operated under Chevron and Rio Grande Resources since 1978. The mine had been idle since the late 1990s, until 2017, when Rio Grande Resources petitioned the state Mining and Minerals Division for a permit to resume mining.
When the state approved a “Return to Active” permit for Mount Taylor mine, several Navajo and Pueblo groups represented by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center appealed the decision in district court. The Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department said the mine’s resurrection would harm sacred sites.
The court upheld the state’s decision to grant the permit and the groups appealed that ruling.
Eric Jantz, staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said the company’s decision to close is a victory for communities that have been fighting for action on mine contamination.
“This mine has been inactive and festering on the landscape for more than two decades,” Jantz told the Journal. “When mines are left idle instead of reclaimed, they pose a greater risk to the environment and to public health. Now, they’re finally going to clean up Mount Taylor, which is culturally significant to the Navajo Nation, and Acoma and Laguna Pueblos.”
The Environmental Protection Agency counts more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. Brancard said the company must restore the mine site to “post-mining land use.”
“Around here, that usually means grazing,” he said. “The disturbed areas are regraded, covered with clean material and revegetated. The Mount Taylor (reclamation) schedule isn’t very long because there isn’t a lot of surface cleanup to do compared to a big open pit mine.”
Rio Grande Resources will also plug or demolish underground mine shafts and backfill waste disposal ponds.
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.