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Residents say ‘death map’ should spur EPA action

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

GRANTS – A federal agency needs to either move the tailings from an abandoned uranium mill near Milan or relocate the owners of about 75 nearby homes, the residents told a top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official on Tuesday.

Residents told Ron Curry, EPA’s Region 6 administrator, that a cluster of cancer cases in subdivisions near the Homestake Mining Co. uranium mill show a need for immediate action by the agency.

They pointed to a draft EPA report published this month showing that residents near the mill face a cancer risk 18 times higher than that considered acceptable by the EPA.

Curry met with homeowners on Tuesday at the home of Jonnie and Milt Head, who live about 2,000 feet southwest of a mile-long tailings pile left by milling operations at the site from 1958 to 1990.

At least 20 cases of cancer, including four deaths, and five cases of thyroid disease have occurred among residents who live within a mile of the sprawling Superfund site about 4.5 miles north of Milan.

Residents showed Curry a “death map” showing illnesses clustered in a small area just south and west of the site.

Area resident Art Gebeau, a retired mining engineer, said the Homestake tailings ultimately threaten water supplies in Milan, Grants and other communities. Moving the tailings pile, which he estimated at 23 million tons of material, may be essential for protecting water supplies, he said.

“Even if you bought out all the people here, where would you stop?” Gebeau said.

Curry told about a dozen residents Tuesday that the EPA has taken actions in the past to help “fence-line communities” bordering industrial sites that include relocating residents and moving tailings piles.

Curry also said he is willing to negotiate with corporate entities that own the Homestake site to help finance a remedy once a course of action is identified.

“If we got a pathway to a solution that we think is scientifically sound, that we think is beneficial to the community, the EPA is not afraid to sit down with the businesses,” he said.

Curry agreed to discuss the proposals with EPA officials in Dallas within 60 days.

Jonnie Head said she and other residents focused attention for decades on groundwater contamination from the mill. But a cluster of cancer cases, and the new EPA report, shifted their attention to high levels of airborne radon tested in ambient air near the mill.

Candice Head-Dylla, 54, the daughter of Milt and Jonnie Head, said she believes a precancerous illness that required the removal of her thyroid five years ago is related to contamination from the Homestake mill. Head-Dylla grew up within sight of the giant tailings pile, which looms over area homes.

Residents are frustrated that officials took decades to alert them to the hazards of airborne radiation from the mill, she said.

“They have known about the (groundwater) contamination since 1961,” Head-Dylla said. “It took them until 1974 to tell us to quit drinking the water. Almost 40 years it took them to figure out that we were being exposed to radiation.”

In 1975, the EPA found elevated levels of pollutants in area wells and said the contamination came from the Homestake mill. Evidence of groundwater contamination was first observed in 1961, according to the EPA.

Under the terms of a 1983 consent decree with the EPA, Homestake hooked up homes to alternate water supplies and paid for their water use until 1995.

Jonnie Head said contamination from the mill now is showing up in a deeper aquifer she and other residents use to irrigate crops on their land.

A draft human risk assessment for the site published this month by the EPA found that residents within a few miles south and west of the site face a cancer risk 18 times the EPA’s “generally acceptable risk” range.

Cancer occurrences greater than one case per 10,000 people exceed the EPA’s generally acceptable range.

Most of the risk is due to inhalation of outdoor radon, a radioactive material, the report found.

More than a decade has passed since uranium ore was mined in New Mexico, but a Canada-based company and a Japanese partner proposed this year reopening a mine near Grants.

The Roca Honda uranium mine near Mount Taylor – idle for 23 years – is seeking a shift in its permit status to “active,” although it wouldn’t produce any uranium for years.

Rio Grande Resources Corp. applied in April to the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division to revise the Mt. Taylor Mine’s permit by October 2014, when its current “standby” permit is scheduled to expire.

Jonnie Head said it would be a mistake to reopen the Roca Honda mine, located about 20 miles north of her home.

“Based on our experience with uranium mining, we don’t think uranium mining is a good idea to begin with” and would use large amounts of scarce water, she said.