State Rep. D. Wonda Johnson, D-Gallup, teared up as she told her colleagues on the interim legislative Indian Affairs Committee and the Rural Economic Opportunities Task Force about the Church Rock uranium spill of 1979.
Johnson was a member of a panel presenting to the committees about the economic development potential of cleaning up uranium sites in New Mexico. The panelists asked legislators to encourage the New Mexico Economic Development Department to make environmental remediation one of the target industries in New Mexico. In addition, the panelists said it is important to train New Mexicans —especially those who live in impacted communities —to work in remediation.
Johnson recalled standing on the porch with her grandmother as her grandmother looked out at her land, homestead, livestock and farm while the uranium waste flowed down the Rio Puerco. Days later, the livestock died. The waste also contaminated the corn field.
“My grandmother stood on the porch and she wiped her tears with her apron,” Johnson said.
She recalled her grandmother questioning what could be left behind for future generations.
Decades later, the waste continues to impact Church Rock and the panelists say it will still take years before the remediation can begin.
The uranium spill resulted in 1,100 tons of waste entering the Rio Puerco and contaminating an 80-mile stretch of the river.
Susan Gordon from the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment presented an update on a study done by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research in 2019 and 2020 looking at the potential for job creation related to cleanup of uranium sites.
This study examined the potential for job creation if $1 billion was set aside for uranium remediation.
According to the study, this would lead to $177.8 million in revenue annually for ten years for local businesses and the creation of 1,040 jobs for a decade with an average salary of $54,663.
These jobs will be created in areas that already have high unemployment, such as McKinley and San Juan counties.
The state Economic Development Department identified nine target industries in its Statewide Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. The panelists want to see a tenth industry added. The target industries are ones that the Economic Development Department is focusing on growing as the state works to transition away from reliance on fossil fuels. These include aerospace, bioscience, cybersecurity, television and film, global trade, intelligent manufacturing, outdoor recreation, sustainable agriculture and sustainable and green energy.