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Native Sun News: Allies unite over uranium cleanup in New Mexico

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

Homestake Mining Co., a subsidiary of Barrick Gold Corp. is under NRC, EPA, and New Mexico state supervision as cleanup continues decades after its uranium milling and waste discharge activities made this a Superfund site in the Bluewater Valley of the Grants Mineral Belt. Photo by Talli Nauman

Allies unite to prevent new uranium mines until old ones are cleaned up
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

MILAN, N.M. –– Jonnie and Milton Head’s granddaughter won’t bring her children to visit them at their home here in the Bluewater Valley.

“There’s five times the EPA recommended daily dosage of airborne radiation,” Jonnie explains.

The Heads are among a number of families living adjacent to the Superfund uranium mill tailings cleanup site of Homestake Mining Co., a subsidiary of Barrick Gold Corp. in Northwest New Mexico.

“They started this first tailings pile probably about 1960 and it was very small, and they kept milling, and it just kept getting bigger,” says Head. Now there are two piles. She lives in Murray Acres subdivision in plain sight of the operation to reclaim some 22 million tons of tailings that have resulted from Homestake’s uranium milling between 1958 and 1990.

The affected families have formed the Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance (BVDA), joining with tribes and other organizations in the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE). Their mutual demand: reclamation of sites with uranium mining waste and stronger regulation of the nuclear industry.

That’s not all. They say the cleanup and stricter rules enforcement are their prior conditions for any new permitting of atomic energy production activities.

Chief on the list for reclamation and stiffer control is Homestake-Barrick’s 90-foot-high radioactive uranium tailings pile and its smaller one covering 200 acres of land north of Milan.

The piles loom over Bluewater Valley’s rural subdivisions, producing radon gas 5.5 times the acceptable limit -- equivalent to an 18-fold increase in lifetime cancer risk, according to an EPA Human Health Risk Assessment Draft Report.

Some 200 residents from Murray Acres, Felice Acres, Broadview Acres, Pleasant Valley Estates, and Valle Verde subdivisions within a two-mile radius of the operation have watched the tailings piles and remediation efforts mounting over the past 50 years, along with worsening contamination of their groundwater.

Concerned about the impact on health and property values, Head laments not having foreseen the future, when her family chose to live here. “We didn’t have any idea it was gonna leak and ruin the water. We just didn’t know,” she says.

The piles, or what EPA calls impoundments, now stretch for a mile. Cleanup crews with heavy machinery spray the surface with water, which flows into three containment ponds, where the hazardous particles it carries are removed by reverse osmosis.

The process is called dilution. The runoff water is injected underground, with the idea that the piles will be covered with dirt and vegetation to protect from remaining waste not leached out. Meanwhile, residents say they fear windblown spray carrying the radioactive dust their way.

Initially, in the early 1960s, Homestake told area residents that the seepage from the mill site’s unlined tailings pond was confined to the shallowest aquifer in the valley. The mining company promised to clean it up completely, so they could use their private wells. The big concerns over the ground water at the site have been uranium, selenium, radium-226 + radium-228, thorium-230, chromium, molybdenum, vanadium, sulfate, chloride, nitrate, and total dissolved solids (TDS). Radium-226 has been the primary contaminant present in the soil.

In 1975, authorities found drinking water unsafe. Due to heavy metals, Homestake had to subsidize bottled water delivery to residents of the nearest subdivision, Murray Acres, in what was thought to be an interim fix.

Located a half-mile from the piles, Murray Acres residents won a lawsuit settlement in 1985, requiring the mining company to provide Milan municipal water for 10 years, as reclamation continued at the site declared a Superfund priority that year.

However, in 1995, the company acknowledged that it had failed to get the poisons out of the water table, and that the pollution had percolated even deeper into the ground -- first to the Upper Chinle Aquifer, then down to the Middle Chinle and Lower Chinle aquifers.

By 2009, the New Mexico Environmental Department was warning other nearby subdivisions’ homeowners not to use the water in their private wells.

Murray Acres resident Jonnie Head motions to a radioactive uranium tailings pile visible from where she is standing a half-mile away on her front porch. Photo by Talli Nauman

“So we’ve got kind of a mess here,” says Head.

Today the Heads and their neighbors pay twice the amount people in Milan pay for delivery of city water. “About half of the cost is funded by taxpayers’ money through the Superfund program, but we still can’t use our water here,” she says.

The panorama has led her association to coin slogans such as: “Dilution is not the solution” and “Move the people or move the pile.”

The contaminant plume in the shallow aquifer receded into the Homestake Barrick site boundaries with the removal of some 4.5 billion gallons of contaminated water and the injection of 540 million gallons of treated water into the aquifer.

Homestake-Barrick states in filings with authorities that “our closure efforts have been extremely proactive and effective in addressing groundwater issues at the Grants facility.”

Homestake Closure Properties Manager Larry Chase pointed out to the homeowners’ association in a letter that “the homes in the Murray Acres subdivision were not built until after the mill had been in operation, and residents in Murray Acres purchased their homes with full knowledge of the mill’s location.

“We believe our closure effort is continuing to make progress based on the sound science, appropriate modeling, and sampling, coupled with appropriate input from regulatory oversight agencies,” he added.

The EPA has conducted radon testing and its most recent status report on the Homestake-Barrick Superfund site states that “the EPA is actively working with the Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance in providing technical assistance and reclamation activities to secure the large tailings impoundment is scheduled for 2014.”

The completion of the last in a series of radon barriers and all other reclamation activities for containment of a smaller tailings impoundment are scheduled for September 2017, as part of the latest five-year cleanup plan in a 30-year effort, EPA says.

However, Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance claims Homestake-Barrick and authorities, alike, have failed them.

“For over 25 years, and in spite of designation as a Superfund site, our community has battled with Homestake-Barrick Gold, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to try to restore our underground aquifers,” the neighborhood association states in its literature.

“They don’t want to spend the money. They can’t clean it up. So now we’re saying move the pile or move the people,” says MASE adherent Petuuche Gilbert. “It’s just a sad situation for the local people.”

An EPA Remediation System Evaluation concludes that “relocation of the tailings should not be considered further by any means given the risks to the community and workers and the greenhouse gas emissions that would be generated during such work.”

While not an ideal solution Gilbert notes, moving the pile would provide 20 years of badly needed jobs in the area, where the economy has gone belly-up in wake of the 20th Century uranium mining boom and bust cycle.

When Milan (population 4,000) and its adjacent big-sister city of Grants started out as railroad towns, they joined Pueblo Indian agricultural communities dependent on the Bluewater Valley’s abundant, clean irrigation water.

For a time during the 1930s and 1940s, Grants and surrounding communities depended on agriculture also. It even proclaimed itself the “Carrot Capital of the World.” After nuclear power fever seized New Mexico in the 1950s, and with the discovery of local uranium necessary to fuel it, the city changed its description to “Uranium Capital of the World.”

When the uranium boom went bust and “all of this land was ruined and unfit to live on,” the city went into “the prison business mode,” Gilbert says. Much of its economy relies on the two men’s prisons and one women’s prison run by private business in Grants.

Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance’s expert consultants have submitted testimony to authorities stating that contamination from Homestake-Barrick is now mixing with that of a nearby mill tailings reclamation site belonging to Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO), which operated the Jackpile Mine, now another Super Fund site, at Paguate Village on the Laguna Indian Pueblo.

The consultants also warn of potential pollution of Milan’s water supply, the San Andres Aquifer, where a plume of contaminants has advanced more than a half-mile inside city limits.

Now mining companies are showing an interest in redoubling their efforts here on the Navajo Nation, the Indian Pueblo land grants, and surrounding areas in the Grants and Uravan mineral belts, as well as throughout the Intermountain West.

Before that proceeds, the alliance wants the Homestake-Barrick Superfund Site to be expanded to a “district” that includes the ARCO (formerly Anaconda) mill tailings site and other Ambrosia Lake area mining and milling discharge locations around Grants. It calls for enactment of funding and cost-recovery mechanisms.

Besides moving the Homestake-Barrick pile, alliance members also want the U.S. Congress to revise the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to classify mill tailings and water discharges as “pollutants” rather than the current classification as “byproduct materials.”

Meanwhile, says Paguate native June Lorenzo of MASE: “We’re hoping the price of uranium plummets.”

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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