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Long overdue uranium mine cleanups leave question of jobs

These waste rock piles at the "Poison Canyon" uranium mines in Grants, New Mexico can contain exposure levels tens or hundreds of times over background.
atomicallyspeaking via Flickr Creative Commons
These waste rock piles at the "Poison Canyon" uranium mines in Grants, New Mexico can contain exposure levels tens or hundreds of times over background.

Thousands of uranium mines lie abandoned across New Mexico and the Southwest.

Now, lawsuit settlement money from large corporations and the U.S. Government is being pumped in to cleaning them up.

Could that mean jobs as well as a healthier environment for New Mexicans?

New Mexico In Depth’s managing editor Marjorie Childress has been following this story closely and sat down with KUNM to unravel how this money is going to be spent.

MARJORIE CHILDRESS: Well, first I just want to note that we're talking about decades in which abandoned radioactive uranium mines have littered the southwest. In New Mexico, there are about 1100 sites clustered in the Grants Mineral Belt, which stretches more than 90 miles from Laguna Pueblo almost to Gallup –– many of them on tribal land. It means that many of the mines will finally be cleaned up over the next decade. But, it's important to remember that these are mines full of radioactive contamination. Children have grown up playing in these landscapes, families and livestock live in these areas. Homes are found to be radioactive. So, cleaning these mines up is urgently needed.

And along with the cleanup that will come from this money, there's potential for jobs for tribal and other local residents in an area of the state that needs jobs. The challenge is to help companies and workers get the specialized training they need to work on radioactive sites, and to access contract opportunities. This is where in New Mexico lawmakers hope the state can help by playing a coordinating role and communications role. They passed a bill this year that creates positions in several state agencies to specifically focus on uranium remediation, and economic development related to remediation.

KUNM: It has taken years to get here, right? Why hasn't this happened before, these cleanups?

CHILDRESS: Well, why it's taken so long is a very good question. The industry emerged in the 1950s, really, because the federal government promised it would purchase all uranium mined in the U.S. at a guaranteed price. The industry lingered for about a decade after the government stopped that program. And then it basically shut down in the early 80s. And the companies just packed up and left. They left their contamination behind.

This was before many of the environmental regulations we have today that require companies and extractive industries to put money aside for cleaning up their operations. And really, it was concerted community activism from people living in these communities over decades that finally spurred federal action in the 2000s. And it took years after that for responsible corporations to be found and negotiated with and, in some cases, court settlements reached for really this money to start flowing. And the federal government also started allocating money every year, but in small amounts relative to what's needed.

KUNM: Let's talk about the damage these mines have done already. Lately, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez talked in an online presentation about the impact of abandoned uranium mines. Marjorie, you've talked to some folks affected in your piece for New Mexico In Depth. What have they been telling you?

CHILDRESS: Well, you know, Dariel Yazzie heads the Navajo EPA Superfund program. He's frank about why he thinks it's taken so long calling it out as environmental injustice and racism. You can read more about his personal story in the article we published on nmindepth.com, But you know, Yazzie, what he brings to his role is his own personal story. I mean, he grew up in a family who worked in the uranium mines. His father worked in uranium mines. His father has ongoing health problems, the types of health issues that research has shown stems from continued exposure to uranium and Yazzie himself is a cancer survivor. He grew up playing in contaminated uranium landscapes. He hopes that going forward, Navajo scientists, agencies and community members are able to have significant sway over how cleanup design plans are created. So that these cleanups happen in a way that protects their families and communities in the future.

KUNM: Obviously, this cleanup is an important process to be starting. Marjorie Childress is the managing editor for New Mexico In Depth. Thanks for being here.

CHILDRESS: You're welcome. Thank you.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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