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ProPublica investigation finds uranium contaminates groundwater in NM and beyond

Uranium contamination extends several miles in an aquifer under the Bluewater disposal site in New Mexico
Mauricio Rodriguez Pons
Uranium contamination extends several miles in an aquifer under the Bluewater disposal site in New Mexico

In America’s rush to build the nuclear arsenal that won the Cold War, safety was sacrificed for speed. Mining companies built dozens of mills and processing sites to refine uranium ore.

But the government didn’t have a plan for the toxic byproducts, many of which are known to cause health problems. Reporters from the nonprofit ProPublica investigated the impact on water sources around the country, and especially in the West. Journalist Mark Olalde led the investigation and spoke to KUNM reporter Alice Fordham

MARK OLALDE: We started this project by investigating one specific site in New Mexico just north of Grants and Milan and at that site, a community is being torn down and people are signing NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and liability waivers and, and being moved away from a site because the groundwater's contaminated, because the site is leaking carcinogenic radon.

And we realized that this was just one example of a larger system, and we went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency overseeing this, and asked them what they had done to study how they regulated this.

And they said that sort of analysis had never been done. And that, as an investigative journalist, just set off alarm bells. And then taking that a step further, we quickly realized that the status quo of a lot of these sites was for the government to relax its own groundwater cleanup standards. So if it was too difficult to reclaim and remediate a site, they would simply change the numbers on paper that were deemed safe at the site or that were deemed permissible.

And we wanted to know, was that something that happened at one site, two sites? Or was that something that happened at every uranium mill that's ever been decommissioned in the United States?

KUNM: And so how did you investigate and what did you find?

OLALDE: We read several tens of thousands of pages worth of documents from the NRC, from the Department of Energy, from the Environmental Protection Agency, from states, from companies. I traveled to sites, to former mills in three states. We interviewed about 100 people who were former regulators, who were from tribes, who were researchers, activists, residents who live across the street from these sites.

And what we found was that at three quarters of these sites, there's no liner between the waste and the ground. At about 85% of these sites, they had polluted groundwater at some point. And we found that at about two thirds of sites that had been deemed to be cleaned up, they had only been deemed to be cleaned up because the government had given them some sort of groundwater cleanup exemption, making it easier to meet the standard.

KUNM: You mentioned that you started off your interest in this story with some reporting in New Mexico. What can you tell me about the impact of this problem on this state particularly?

OLALDE: So we can definitely say that New Mexico has borne the brunt of really anything related to America's quest for nuclear dominance in the atomic age. In our investigation, we looked at uranium mill waste called tailings, and we found between 250 and 300 million tons of this stuff around the country, about 95 million of those tons are in Northwest New Mexico alone.

Those were at seven former mills that have all been torn down. All seven of those, their waste was either partially or totally unlined. Every one of those seven mills contaminated groundwater, some of them near the Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Acoma, Pueblo of Laguna, and five of those seven have gotten the groundwater cleanup exemptions that this investigation was specifically looking into.

KUNM: And what do government agencies say when you ask them about all of this? 

OLALDE: This is an interesting environmental and public health issue because the current NRC, DOE, they didn't create this issue. They're responding to a historical harm that the US federal government did and so they're really regulating in reverse. They're really looking at historical harms.

Now they've got best practices, but those best practices don't really apply to many of these mills because they were passed after these mills were built. And so essentially we have an entire industry that was grandfathered in and you know, they're doing their best.

So regulators say, 'Hey, we're going for thoroughness in the cleanup, as opposed to speed.' And the exemptions happened through a public process, and so they say that 'We're taking feedback and making sure that the exemptions we give are still protective.'

And most of those things are correct. And they have cleaned up about half of these sites. But the broader issue here is they're still really leaning on exemptions and excuses to clean up groundwater. They did not create this problem, but it's definitely a situation where they can and probably should be going further in protecting these groundwater resources for the future.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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