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Native Sun News: Native nations unite on uranium mine cleanup

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Teracita Keyanna stands on Red Pond Road, in her community of 50 Diné members of the Navajo Tribe, which is located between the site of the largest release of radioactive materials in U.S. history and two of the largest abandoned uranium mines. Photo by Talli Nauman

Native nations and allies unite on cleanup of abandoned mines
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

Part I | Part II

RED WATER POND COMMUNITY,N.M.—Agencies under U.S. Congressional mandate to set cleanup priorities at abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation area have their work cut out for them.

Almost half the uranium extracted in the United States was mined and milled in and around the Navajo Indian Reservation. That makes the environs of its sacred Mt. Taylor, in the realm of the San Juan River Basin and the Colorado Plateau’s Grants Mineral Belt of northwest New Mexico, one of the state’s most contaminated places.

Now nuclear power promoters are hoping to dig new mines, even before reclaiming the old ones.

The news is: Residents burdened with the existing mines’ radioactive legacy have come up with agendas that could guide decision makers in preventing a worsening situation, the Native Sun News learned on a fact-finding tour.

The expedition entailed visiting with Diné at Red Water Pond Road Community, adjacent to the location of the largest radioactive materials release in U.S. history – from United Nuclear Corp.’s uranium mill tailings spill, which occurred precisely 35 years ago, on July 16, 1979. The spot is a Superfund site.

The field work also covered the impact on the Laguna, Acoma and Zuni pueblos of the Atlantic Richfield-Anaconda Minerals Co. Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine, once the world’s largest open pit extraction site, now also a Superfund site on the EPA’s National Priority List.

Investigation included in-person interviews with homeowners living in sight of Homestake-Barrick Gold’s Bluewater Mill uranium tailings pile, yet another Superfund site - where Jackpile ore was processed and where reclamation continues years after its scheduled conclusion.

The journalistic exposé culminated with a visit to what could become part of New Mexico’s first in-situ leaching, or solution mine and mill project, if project proponent Uranium Resources Inc. defeats local opposition.

Protagonists of the cleanup campaign from all these locations gathered at Red Water Pond Community on July 19, to hold a public commemoration of the 1979 Church Rock “disaster”, as they called it.

They started out the day’s agenda with a two-mile walk to the spill site, where more than 1,000 tons of solid waste and some 94 million gallons of radioactive liquid broke the dam of an evaporation pond, washing into the Rio Puerco channel, which carried it downstream past Gallup, New Mexico, and all the way to Winslow, Arizona.

The gathering constituted an effort to “educate our people about the effect and impacts of uranium mining and the continued work to remove uranium contaminated soil from our immediate and surrounding areas to protect our precious aquifers,” the Red Water Pond Road Community Association said in an open invitation.

Since 2007, the EPA has been engaged in removing layers of contaminated dirt from the community, six inches at a time, to dispose of it in order to meet standards.

The approximately 50 members of the community have had to spend weeks at a time living in hotels “eating microwave foods” in nearby Gallup, New Mexico, when cleanup crews were working, according to resident Teracita Keyanna. “It was pretty intense,” she said.

The excavation has sheared the hillsides of vegetation, except where a sweat lodge and a burial site are being protected, and dust storms now are frequent, neighbors said.

“Families who still live here are being exposed every day,” said Jonathan Perry, president of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM).

In addition to hosting the United Nuclear Corp.’s mill site and Northeast Church Rock Mine, which is the largest defunct uranium mine in the Navajo Nation, Red Pond Road Community is also home to the Kerr-McGee’s abandoned Quivira Mine.

They call it “the radioactive road,” he said.

Residents remember experiencing uranium exploration and development here in the 1960s, as crews unearthed ancestors’ remains, put them in a cardboard box, and sank shafts on the hillsides around their homes, ENDAUM is part of the grassroots Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE), which issued the 2012 Nuclear Free Zone Declaration for the Grants Mineral Belt and Northwest New Mexico, supported by the War Resisters League.

The declaration joins the Navajo Nation’s 2005 Diné Natural Resources Protection Act (DNPRA), which imposed a moratorium on uranium mining and processing in Navajo jurisdiction and its 2012 Radioactive Materials Transportation Act (RMTA), regulating shipments.

MASE adherents, including ENDAUM, which has been leading the effort to thwart proposed new mining for 10 years, took part in the commemoration.

Along with Concerned Diné Citizens, ENDAUM is asking Navajo tribal members to urge their council representatives to back Legislation No. 91-14 to rescind approval of a right-of-way that allows Uranium Resources Inc.’s wholly-owned subsidiary Hydro Resources Inc. access to lands in the checkerboard area for new uranium mining.

The checkerboard area is property east of the Navajo reservation boundary that is “checkered” with 50 types of land status, including Navajo allotments under tribal supervision, as well as private, federal and state public lands.

“They call us ‘outside Navajo’,” Perry said. “Getting services is different from getting them on the Navajo Nation.”

The activists say the tribal Resource and Development Committee action violates both the natural resources and the radioactive materials acts, as well as a binding Temporary Access Agreement between Uranium Resources Inc. and the Navajo Nation.

“These Navajo Nation laws were adopted to protect all of creation and future generations from the known effects of uranium mining & processing,” Concerned Diné Citizens said in a written statement.

“Please call the Navajo Nation Council delegates at 928-871-6380 and ask them to hold URI accountable and urge them to uphold the DNPRA, RMTA and Diné Fundamental Law, to protect all life & future generations,” they said in the July 16 statement.

The Temporary Access Agreement requires the company to cleanup existing uranium waste as a condition for proceeding with its plans to demonstrate the safety of in-situ mining for Church Rock’s population of 300.

The Texas-based business has undertaken no cleanup since it began consolidating mineral rights for its proposed in-situ operations in the Grants Mineral Belt 20 years ago.

On May 16, 2006, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission affirmed that existing radiation from mining waste abandoned at the proposed sites by previous owners amounts to "background radiation" and does not count toward the 0.1 rem dose-limit applicable to new in-situ facility licenses.

URI has become one of the largest mineral-rights owners in the mining belt. Its properties stretch all the way from Chaco Canyon on the northwest to Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Park on the southeast.

Its 100-mile-long empire includes in-situ projects dubbed Churchrock-Mancos, Crownpoint, Nose Rock, Roca Honda, West Largo-Ambrosia Lake, Cebolleta and Juan Tafoya.

They are located at or near more than 80 underground and open-pit mines and six uranium processing mills operated previously by Anaconda, Homestake, Kerr-McGee, Phillips Petroleum, and United Nuclear.

Organizers of the commemoration considered those places in the event, concluding, “There are still hundreds of abandoned mines and contamination from the uranium mining boom of the 20th century left across Navajo lands, all of which need to be studied and cleaned up.”

(Contact Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health and Environment Editor at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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