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Nuclear officials hold 'historic' uranium meeting on Navajo Nation

A surveyor holds up a specimen of Todilto limestone with quartz and uranium mineralization from the "Poison Canyon" Uranium Mines in Grants, New Mexico.
A surveyor holds up a specimen of Todilto limestone with quartz and uranium mineralization from the "Poison Canyon" Uranium Mines in Grants, New Mexico.

In a historic move, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission made the trek from Washington D.C. all the way to western New Mexico on April 22 to meet with Navajo tribal members and leaders who desperately want uranium contamination off their lands.

KUNM talked with New Mexico In Depth’s Marjorie Childress to find out what the community was saying.

MARJORIE CHILDRESS: There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. In addition to that, there are four uranium mills and those mills are the facilities that uranium ore was processed in. Those mills are regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which today oversees one of the mills that is located north of Church Rock, New Mexico. They came out Friday afternoon and went to that community to hold a listening session of sorts, where they heard from about 20 members of the community. Then that evening, they held an official commission meeting in Gallup.

KUNM: So, the NRC has said this event was the first held outside of Washington D.C. for decades. What does that say about the significance of these cleanups to the communities here?

CHILDRESS: Well, I think it was really important and it was recognized. The chairman of the commission, Christopher Hanson called it historic. Commissioners also referred to the uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation as a tragedy. That tells you a lot about their thought process around it.

They have a small piece, in some respects, of this massive undertaking that the EPA hopes to undertake over the next decade of cleaning up the uranium mines. The EPA proposes in the case of the Northeast Church Rock Mine, taking most of the contaminated debris and placing it on top of the mill site that the NRC regulates, which is about a mile south on private land across the highway. In order to do that, they need the NRC to actually agree to that. They have to approve a permit.

Community residents and the Navajo Nation official position is that uranium waste needs to be removed from their land. And community members for the past decade had been saying just placing it on the mill site isn't good enough, because it's still in our community. I imagine the NRC, which is expected to make a decision about this in June, have gotten quite a bit of feedback from the community through the public comment period. So, it's possible that's what triggered this visit.

KUNM: Let's take a moment to listen to what one community member was saying during public comment.

EDITH HOOD: "I'm from the Red Water Pond Road Community Association . We've asked them to take the waste off of Indian land, off the Navajo reservation. And here we are 43 years later... We're still asking for that."

KUNM: Marjorie, when you were there, it was very windy from the videos and pictures posted along with your article. What were others talking about at this public meeting while this dust storm brewed around you?

CHILDRESS: Right. Well, in the afternoon, the meeting was held in a shade structure that has open sides that you know, plastic sheeting is all around and the wind was just hammering it and they really used the wind as a prop in a way.

One community member Annie Benally said this is like this every day. Dariel Yazzie, who manages the Navajo EPA Superfund program and is himself an impacted uranium community member from another area of the Navajo Nation. He said he was glad air sampling wasn't happening right then because it might scare people. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, in his remarks, mentioned the wind as well. He said this is what the Navajo people live with. Just imagine 500 open uranium mines on a windy day. Benally suggested they save the dust on their clothes when they went home to remember what it was like.

Really what they were pointing out was just how significant uranium contamination is on the reservation. I mean, it's extensive and widespread. So it really provided NRC members an opportunity to viscerally experience the worry and dangers posed to life in a uranium contaminated landscape. Where community members described long term health impacts like cancer and lung disease, worry over their children playing today in the landscape.

What really came across clearly to me, was the real worry and dangers that are front of mind for residents living around these abandoned mines. Also a clear takeaway was that community members don't want that mining debris to stay in their community, even if it is moved to private land across a highway, a mile down the road.

KUNM: Sounds dusty. Thanks for covering this issue and carving out the time to talk to us today.

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