Ronnda Ross and Gloria Lewis lament uranium mining impacts at Laguna Pueblo’s Paguate Village. Photo by Talli Nauman / Native Sun News

Native Sun News: Laguna Pueblo still affected by uranium mine

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

Mine clean up can never restore cultural losses
Decades later Indian people still contracting cancer

Part I | Part II | Part III

PAGUATE VILLAGE, N.M. —Even if authorities meet demands to ban new uranium mines until abandoned ones are cleaned up no amount of effort can reclaim the cultural losses the mining has imposed to date on the Laguna, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi and Navajo people of the Four Corners area, they say.

In the area of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, sandwiched between the Uravan Mineral Belt and the Grants Mineral Belt, native people claim that a former uranium mining boom forever altered their community and home life; they don’t want a new upsurge of the industry.

“A lot of our people have suffered,” said Paguate resident Lawrence Encino. “We don’t want more mining.”

The abandoned Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine here on the Laguna Pueblo, 40 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a root of suffering and a prime example of the area’s experience.

Once the world’s largest open pit mine, it became the subject of an EPA enforcement order on Aug. 12, after a decade of cleanup failed to restore health and safety levels to federal standards and following an additional seven years of failure to take remedial action.

“EPA will employ its ‘enforcement-first’ policy prior to initiating the Remedial Investigation / Feasibility Study,” its Region 6 Office announced in reopening the case.

The policy calls for identification of Potentially Responsible Parties to conduct the groundwork for fixing up Superfund sites, “wherever appropriate”, in order to save public money. Jackpile-Paguate went on the EPA’s National Priority List as a Superfund site in December 2013.

Anaconda Minerals Co., a division of Atlantic Richfield Co. mined on Laguna Pueblo from 1953 through early 1982 at three open pits known as Jackpile, North Paguate, and South Paguate, under a contract negotiated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which allowed the company to leave when uranium prices dropped.

Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), which did indeed pull out, became a subsidiary of British Petroleum in 2000. Meanwhile, Laguna Pueblo contracted for a reclamation project from 1986 to 1995, only to learn from inspectors in 2007 that the project was deemed incomplete, according to EPA.

“The site can now undergo remediation through the CERCLA process,” the EPA said this past week. CERCLA stands for Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which established the Superfund.

The former Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine encompasses 7,868 acres of canyons and arroyos just to the east of the village of Paguate in Cibola County. Hazardous substances from the site leach into the streambeds of the Rio Paguate and Rio Moquino, which flow together in the middle of open pits and waste dumps upriver from the village, to form the Rio San José, EPA says.

Among the site’s main contaminants are uranium (U-234, U-235 and U-238), arsenic, barium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, manganese, vanadium, selenium and zinc. High concentrations of uranium exist just downstream from the site, it says.

The incomplete Jackpile Reclamation Project resulted in some contouring of the mine and burial of some mine waste, but much work remains.

Meanwhile, the members of Paguate’s population struggle to heal their emotional scars.

Resident Gloria Lewis remembers that friends and relatives initially agreed with locating the mine in their community because they were patriotic. Many were military or veterans’ families and believed the country “needed our help to fight the war,” she said, referring to uranium’s vital role in atomic bombs.

Many farmers and ranchers became miners. Relations who had moved away returned to take jobs.

Lewis described their despair over an 85-percent unemployment rate when the mine closed and upon learning that “the uranium belt was called the sacrifice zone. The human population wasn’t even considered,” she said.

Her house was condemned after blasting and mining underneath Paguate Village caused walls of several traditional stone-and-mortar homes to crack, she recalls. “They never addressed the health, especially the women’s, the ones that washed the clothes and fixed the food,” she said.

Neighbor Ronnda Ross remembers the daily blasting during the mining boom, and “a lot of women having miscarriages in the last 30 years.”

Another neighbor, Christine Laurence added: “Home health agencies get a bounty for each miner they sign up to monitor their degrading health.” However, she said, “They don’t think about how miners have been taken care of.”

Radon gas exposure from the mine dust contaminated fruit, meat, and homes, said resident June Lorenzo. “Decades later, people who worked in the uranium mines are finding all kinds of cancer,” she said. “Everyone knows that it’s connected (to the mining), but companies insist that it’s not.”

Resident Encino cried when he considered the aftermath of the boom. “A lot of our people have suffered,” he said. “Not just in the village,” he added.

“The wind blows everything. People had sheep that grazed; people ate the sheep. A lot of our people have passed away from it,” he said, noting they could experience radiation damage from ingesting uranium. “Anybody can get contaminated,” he said.

Encino added that the way of life has changed for the survivors of the mining boom, too. “Back then, people had more respect for our way of life. It’s affected the way we do certain things. We have our mother entity creator who we ask for guidance.

“Now it’s all about money. Money is evil. We still rely on deities every day. Once we lose that we are no longer a people, the elders remind us.”

“It hurts,” he stated. “It hurts in here,” he said clenching his fists to his chest. “It really hurts.”

Yet things could have been worse. The Laguna Pueblo, representing a population of about 8,000, rejected mining company offers to operate a uranium mill on tribal land. The mill was built just down the road at Bluewater, another Superfund site.

(Contact Talli Nauman, Health and Environment Editor of NSN at

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