Money for abandoned uranium mine cleanup spurs questions about design, jobs
By Marjorie Childress, New Mexico In Depth, April 13, 2022
“Leetso Dooda”, which means “no uranium” in the Diné language, is a rallying cry in Navajo communities where abandoned uranium mines and mills dot the landscape. (Images provided by Bryant Furlow of a mill site in the Ambrosia lake mining district and Kalen Goodluck of signs near Church Rock, New Mexico)
Uranium mines are personal for Dariel Yazzie.
Now head of the Navajo Nation’s Superfund program, Yazzie grew up near Monument Valley, Arizona, where the Vanadium Corporation of America started uranium operations in the 1940s.
His childhood home sat a stone’s throw from piles of waste from uranium milling, known as tailings. His grandfather, Luke Yazzie, helped locate the first uranium deposits mined on the Navajo Nation. His father was a uranium miner, then worked for Peabody Coal mine.
Yazzie, Diné, heard the family stories about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scanning his family’s home for radiation in 1974, when he was 4 years old, finding several high contamination readings.
“Nothing was done,” he said. Not until 32 years later, in 2006, when a new scan was done, leading to eventual demolition in 2009 of the home where he grew up.
His father now suffers from kidney failure and complications with his heart and lungs, ailments that can stem from uranium exposure, research shows. He received financial support through the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides lump sum payments to former uranium workers, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that he struggles with illness.
And it’s not just his dad. Yazzie has survived cancer, and now lives with the prospect that it could come back one day.
“We often hear about environmental justice, social injustice,” Yazzie said. “Flat-out racism is what the local perception is about these long-standing issues, almost 80 years in some areas. Lack of cleanup, lack of funding, lack of emphasis to prioritize cleanup.”
But yesterday’s injustices could mean jobs for the future.
Abandoned uranium mines are found in all corners of the Southwest. In New Mexico, about 1,100 sites where mining, milling or exploratory drilling occurred lie abandoned, mostly in the Grants Mineral Belt, which stretches more than 90 miles from Laguna Pueblo almost to Gallup. Hundreds more dot the greater Navajo Nation, in Arizona, Utah and Colorado.
With big money flowing in the coming decade from settlements with large corporations and the U.S. government for contamination, cleanup of hundreds of abandoned mines will finally begin after decades of neglect. And that means jobs for tribal citizens and businesses, providing an economic balm for areas that need work. One estimate concludes that about 1,000 jobs could be created over the next 10 years for every $1 billion dollars spent on cleanup, with an average salary of nearly $55,000 per year.
The New Mexico Legislature appears convinced. Lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year to develop a strategic plan for uranium cleanup and to focus economic development on reclamation.
“There are plenty of jobs that can be created cleaning up … abandoned uranium mining sites all across the area,” said Susan Gordon, coordinator of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, a coalition of activist groups located in uranium-impacted communities.
But cleanup contracts issued recently by the Environmental Protection Agency have gone to out-of-state companies.
And reclamation brings its own troubles. Some cleanup involves little more than moving contamination from one site to another. The first major cleanup proposed, in Church Rock, New Mexico, exposes the shortcomings of bypassing local communities in the planning process.
Largest radioactive catastrophe in the U.S.
Most of the uranium mining and milling on and around the Navajo Nation occurred before environmental regulations were in place to safeguard human health. When the industry shut down in the 1980s, companies closed shop, leaving hundreds of abandoned uranium mines, extensive surface and groundwater contamination, Radon gas releases and vast amounts of radioactive soil and mining debris.