Uranium cleansing could benefit New Mexico and tribes


SANTA FE, NM (AP) – For Democratic State MP Wonda Johnson, Church Rock’s catastrophic uranium leak in 1979 is deeply personal.

She remembers standing on a porch with her grandmother as a small child watching radioactive waste flow down the Rio Puerco from a broken mill pond.

The heavy pollution would kill their horses and cattle and poison the soil in their cornfield – one of the largest in the area – so it would no longer be able to grow anything, Johnson said.

“My grandma was standing on the porch wiping her tears with her apron,” Johnson told two legislative bodies on Wednesday. “And she said, ‘What am I going to leave my grandchildren now? What livelihood will we have? ‘ ”

The Church Rock eruption is just part of the huge waste uranium left by the Indian Country mining industry, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. Now, some tribal advocates, state officials, and lawmakers believe that disposing of the waste would not only eliminate an environmental and health hazard, but also create well-paying jobs in the affected communities.

A report on the economic benefits of creating an industry to control uranium mining waste was presented to the State Committee on Indian Affairs and the Task Force on Rural Economic Opportunities at a hearing on Wednesday.

Jobs created by waste disposal would help replace jobs that have been lost due to changes in the global energy market, including lower demand for uranium, the report said.

McKinley, San Juan and Cibola counties – all with high indigenous populations – are among the hardest hit, with unemployment rates all above the state average, it said.

The University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research produced the report.

There are a number of potential sources of funding for this endeavor, but one important one could be a $ 1 billion deal secured by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 from Tronox, a company that mined uranium in the Navajo nation. before filing for bankruptcy.

The $ 1 billion alone could create 1,040 jobs in this new sector over 10 years, said Susan Gordon, coordinator of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, during the presentation.

“Workers who have lost their jobs could be quickly retrained to work in a remediation industry,” said Gordon, noting that many people who have been displaced have transferable skills.

The goal is to make environmental remediation the state’s tenth target industry, Gordon said, explaining that target industries will receive special attention and higher priority.

The American West has an estimated 15,000 abandoned uranium mines, including about 550 on Navajo land, the report said.

Church Rock is the most famous and massive source of uranium pollution.

It’s the largest radioactive release in U.S. history, but received only a fraction of the public as the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant leak that happened a few months earlier – mainly because Church Rock is a rural indigenous community, Gordon said.

About 1,100 tons of uranium tailings and 94 million gallons of toxic wastewater polluted the Rio Puerco over 80 miles, Gordon said.

Church Rock is a strong example of how long a clean-up can take, she said. In 1983 it was put on the national priority list for areas in dire need of redevelopment, and 38 years later the federal government has still done little, she said.

“You can see how complicated it is to come up with a plan and it takes years before shovels hit the ground,” said Gordon.

Several lawmakers complained about what they called unjustified foot-dragging when handling uranium waste. Some agreed that creating a larger workforce dedicated to waste disposal could only help.

Eliseo Lee Alcon, D-Milan MP, who once worked in uranium mines, said he was amazed at why clean-up work kept stalling despite tens of millions of dollars being allocated to clean up various uranium landfills.

“It just sits there,” said Alcon. “We’re not doing anything.”

Senator Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, called for a vote to send letters to the EPA, the state Department of Economic Development, and the New Mexico Bioscience Authority asking them to look into what it takes to create this industry, including the financing. The two committees voted in favor of the letters.

After the hearing, Pinto said uranium was particularly hazardous to water so it was important to purify it.

A recent “underground study” shows the Navajo Nation has a high rate of uranium-related cancer, said Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque MP, saying the people were interviewed in confidence.

“That was earth-shattering,” said Caballero of the results.

Johnson said the memory of her grandmother, who mourned the destruction of Church Rock, stayed with her.

“That’s why this is an important project for me,” she said.

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