Communities of northwestern New Mexico are still struggling to clean up contaminated lands resulting from the last uranium mine boom of the 1940s –1980s. During that time, our area, the Grants Mineral Belt, produced more uranium than any other place in the world and accounted for almost half of all the uranium produced in the United States. This production was laxly regulated for the workers, the environment and the general community. Contamination of our water and land and exposure to radiation have taken a toll. Cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, birth defects, miscarriages and other health problems plague our rural communities.
In addition to the health problems and environmental contamination, the boom-and-bust cycle of the uranium industry left our communities largely in poverty. Many people are still without access to running water or electricity. When the mines closed in the late 1980s, towns like Grants earned the nickname “Repo City” because people lost their jobs and could no longer afford their car payments. The water was contaminated, so traditional forms of economic development, such as farming and ranching, were ruined.
Today, our communities are still recovering from the last boom-and-bust cycle of uranium mining. Uranium contamination is only beginning to be reclaimed. The full extent of water contamination and health problems is not yet known because there are no comprehensive water- or health studies. But, with what data are available, it is clear there is a connection between health problems and living near abandoned mines . It is also clear that there are contaminated groundwater systems and that the contamination continues to spread without reclamation. The Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent study shows that communities outside of Milan, NM, are being exposed to radon from the Homestake/Barrick Superfund site, which is more than 5.5 times the EPA’s acceptable exposure limit, resulting in an increased cancer risk of 18 times.
Even while our communities struggle with the contamination from the past, uranium companies are aggressively trying to open new mines in New Mexico. One of the projects, the Roca Honda mine, is touted as what would be the largest underground mine in the country. The proposed project is on Mt. Taylor, a mountain sacred to the Native Americans in the area. It is a place of great cultural and spiritual significance. It is central to oral histories and ceremonies and plays a vital role in cosmology and religious practices. Shrines, pilgrimage trails, traditional medicines, and springs are all at risk of being destroyed by the Roca Honda project. Mining on Mt. Taylor not only jeopardizes the spiritual harmony and balance of our communities but also our very sense of self as individuals and communities that are inextricably tied to the mountain.
Nearby communities are also very concerned about impacts to groundwater and natural springs. Despite repeated industry promises, uranium mining continues to pollute air and water wherever it occurs. Conventional uranium mines currently operating in Utah have repeatedly been cited and fined for environmental law violations. The Schwartzwalder mine in Colorado, operated as recently as 2000, has left groundwater contaminated with uranium levels 1,000 times higher than EPA’s health-based standards. The mine operator has repeatedly defied orders from state regulatory agencies to clean up its mess. This is the reality of contemporary uranium mining.
Given that uranium mines invariably pollute, promises of jobs and economic development—promises that rely on studies that have been discredited—must be tempered by the reality that tens of millions of gallons of water will be polluted and wasted. Without the facts, communities slated to host uranium mines cannot make informed decisions about short-term, modest economic gains that might come versus long-term losses of drinking water and irrigation sources. The mines’ profits will likely not even be kept in New Mexico or in the United States. The 1872 Mining Act allows foreign companies like Strathmore, from Canada, and its Japanese partner, Sumitomo, to mine public lands without paying any rent or royalties to the American people.
Once again, our communities are being forced to choose between the health of our families and the environment and economic development and jobs. Our communities deserve sustainable, long-term and healthy economic solutions. We will not support any economic options—like uranium mining—that will sacrifice our health, water, air and our future generations.
Nadine Padilla is a member of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE). MASE is a nonprofit coalition of organizations from uranium-impacted communities fighting for cleanup of uranium mining and milling waste and ensuring that no future contamination occurs. www.masecoalition.org