August 11, 2023

Navajo Nation community pushes to have uranium mine waste moved to nearby landfill

NM Legis handout

Residents of a small Navajo Nation community are hopeful that some of the historic mine waste impacting their land and health will be hauled away. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Quivira Mine produced approximately 4.6 million pounds of uranium, making it the third largest uranium mine on Navajo Nation.

As the uranium was hauled off, waste was discarded in a pile that today is located about 200 yards from a residence in the Red Water Pond Road Community. 

This waste primarily consists of rocks, dirt and sand removed from the mine shafts.

“There is a level of radioactivity, but it is not uranium ore,” Susan Gordon with the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment told the interim legislative Indian Affairs Committee on Thursday during a meeting in Gallup.

For about half a century, the Navajo people living in the Red Water Pond Road Community have had to live with the toxic waste. But that could change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering two alternatives for the waste: capping it and storing it at the site in the Red Water Pond Road Community or hauling it off for disposal at a nearby landfill in the Thoreau area.

But some members of the Thoreau community are concerned about the radioactive waste being moved into their area.

And it isn’t just Thoreau residents who are concerned.

Moving the waste to the landfill involves trucking it 30 miles, which has communities along that route concerned as well.

Leaving it on site is not the best option, Gordon said. This is because there could be erosion and the site would need constant monitoring.

“It would be very challenging for the community to continue to have to live with this mine waste,” she said. 

The landfill includes 640 acres of private surface ownership and federal subsurface ownership and has several advantages compared to leaving the mine waste where it is.

For example, it is more isolated from residences. Gordon said the closest house is about a mile away and the landfill is about four miles from I-40. 

She said the natural features at the landfill reduce erosion and will help protect the groundwater.

The space could allow for the construction of engineered uranium waste disposal facilities that could address not only the waste from the Quivira Mine, but also waste left behind by hundreds of uranium operations across the Navajo Nation.

The landfill is managed by a local organization, which makes it easier to monitor the site in perpetuity.

Gordon said the New Mexico Environment Department would need to approve permits for the waste to be stored at the landfill and, should the EPA give the go ahead for moving the waste, it would still be several years before any of it could be hauled off.

Teracita Keyanna is a member of the Red Water Pond Road Community Association. She said the mining that occurred there was done without the community’s consent and that the community has vocally expressed the desire to have the mine waste removed.

Her community has suffered from the health impacts of uranium mining and the waste left behind for generations.

“We see that it’s not good to be living near these locations. And that’s one of the biggest reasons why our community wants a safe environment,” she said. “We want to be living in our ancestral lands, and to be able to thrive and be able to have what the US government considers the pursuit of happiness. We want that as well. And we should be able to have that. It’s our human right to be able to live where we’ve been living for all our years, all our generations.”

Should the mine waste be moved to the landfill, it could prove to be a solution for some of the waste located at hundreds of sites across the Navajo Nation.

Keyanna emphasized that should the landfill be chosen as the final disposal location, it needs to be done in a safe manner that doesn’t put communities at risk.

Gordon said some of those abandoned mine sites are places where the waste piles can be safely capped and left in place. But others might need a solution like the Red Rock Landfill.

This could also create generational jobs in trucking mine waste and associated work.

State Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Upper Fruitland, expressed interest in the proposal, noting that his district also includes abandoned uranium mines.

As for what the state legislature could do to support the effort, Gordon said it could provide funding to the agencies that will oversee the work. Those include the New Mexico Environment Department’s Water Quality Bureau and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Mining and Minerals Division.