About four million tons of uranium ore were extracted during mining operations on the Navajo Nation from 1944 to 1986. Many Navajos worked and lived close to the mines and mills. There are more than 500 abandoned and mostly unremediated uranium mining claims. Two-hundred-fifty-nine are scattered across New Mexico. Dust blows off the huge tailings piles. Drinking-water sources in some of these areas still have high levels of radionuclides. A seven-year UNM study of the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, found that tribal members exposed to uranium waste are at increased risk of serious health problems and death.
More than $1 billion—part of a settlement the federal government reached with Anadarko Petroleum and Tronox, Inc., a spinoff of Kerr-McGee Corp.—will be administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean about 10 percent of abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation. Of the cleanup funds, $87 million is being set aside specifically for the Quivira Mine near Church Rock, New Mexico. Church Rock is where, in 1979, at a mill owned by General Electric subsidiary United Nuclear Corp., 1,100 tons of solid waste and 93 million gallons of radioactive liquid tailings spilled into the Río Puerco, carrying it through Gallup and 80 miles into the Navajo Nation—the largest release of radioactive materials in United States history. Immediate cleanup efforts only managed to remove about 1 percent of the waste.
The Navajo Nation will receive $47 million for cleanup of the massive Shiprock Mill, where ore was processed near the San Juan River. In April 2014, several federal agencies, representatives of the Navajo Nation and others gathered in Gallup to discuss the progress made so far under an initial five-year plan for dealing with uranium contamination. The EPA is developing another five-year plan.
The area near Grants, in western New Mexico, contains one of the largest, highest-grade uranium deposits in the United States. At one time, the Mount Taylor Mine employed 800 people. The mine was shut down in 1990 because of the depressed uranium market. In 2005, the tribe banned uranium mining, processing and transporting on its land. That hasn’t stopped new proposals to mine uranium along Mount Taylor. Even if not allowed on Navajo land, companies may be able to get at uranium deposits nearby, as the area is a checkerboard of federal, state and tribal ownership. However, the companies need permission to drive commercial trucks carrying radioactive substances across Indian land.
Determined to protect the extinct volcano and nearby mesas from what they see as further desecration, in 2008 the pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, Zuni, and also the Hopi and Navajo, released an unprecedented report detailing their ancestral and spiritual connections to Mount Taylor, where medicine men gather edible plants and herbs for prayer and healing purposes, and families set up summer camps and graze sheep. The report’s release resulted in state approval of “Traditional Cultural Property” (TCP) designation, bolstering, to some extent, the tribes’ role in the decision-making process in relation to uranium mining and other development on more than 400,000 acres.
In 2009, mining companies, local ranchers and businesses and some Spanish Land Grant communities filed suit against the TCP designation in the New Mexico Supreme Court. In February 2014, in an opinion sought by the five tribes and the state of New Mexico’s Cultural Properties Review Committee, the court ruled that the designation of Mount Taylor as a TCP did not violate due process or state statutes. The court also affirmed that 19,000 acres of Cebolleta Land Grant common lands are not included within the designation.
New Uranium Mining Projects
By 2012, several companies, claiming technological advancements that would allow them to operate safely, addressed the Navajo government, begging for permission to mine uranium once again. In April 2014, Río Grande Resources Corporation applied to the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division to revise its “standby” permit for the Mount Taylor Mine. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center, representing Amigos Bravos and MASE (the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment), is currently appealing that permit in state District Court. The NMELC contends that the proposed operation would, among other things, imperil the area’s water supply. Meanwhile, multinational corporations from Canada and Japan have submitted applications for another mine, about nine miles from the peak of Mount Taylor. The Roca Honda Mine would be the largest uranium mine in the United States, mining 1,000 tons a day for about nine years. A spokesman has said that the companies are committed to avoiding damaging culturally sensitive sites. According to the draft Environmental Impact Statement, the project has the potential to create about 2,400 jobs and over $1 billion in economic activity.
The EPA, the Navajo Nation and corporations have performed some remediation at several sites, but after more than 30 years, areas of Milan, Church Rock and other northwestern New Mexico sites have not been significantly upgraded. “They continue to contaminate the air, land and water,” says Susan Gordon, coordinator of MASE. “The communities that are members of our coalition have been irreparably harmed by uranium mining and milling in the Grants Mineral Belt. Our position is that no new uranium mines should be allowed to open until the toxic legacy from uranium mining has been cleaned up.”