‘This has got to stop’: Indigenous activists decry lingering contamination decades after the last uranium mines closed

Thursday night, a group of Indigenous community leaders gave presentations about the legacy of uranium mining in the state that still threatens the health and environment of their communities, decades after the last mines ceased operations. 

From the 1940s through the early 1990s, New Mexico produced roughly 70 percent of the uranium in the United States, which was used in nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Members of Indigenous communities across the state did most of the dangerous mining of the radioactive material, and those communities are still struggling to hold the federal government accountable for cleaning up the toxic contamination that was left behind. 

“We felt that there were a large portion of our communities across the state that still remain largely unaware of the major environmental justice impacts that uranium continues to have on so many individuals—especially our Indigenous communities—across the state,” said Virginia Necochea, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), which organized the online event. 

“It’s very important that we recognize that there are hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned mines, unsealed pits, mine entrances, tailing ponds, waste piles, highly radioactive materials and toxic chemicals from uranium mining and milling, many that have yet to be cleaned up and continue to pose significant health threats,” Necochea said. “This continued uranium contamination that we witness, and that our communities continue to face, is a clear example of environmental racism and an environmental injustice that continues.”

A state of sacrifice zones

Much of the uranium mining that occurred in New Mexico was on tribal lands and was performed by tribal members. The Grants Mining District and the nearby Navajo Nation is home to one of the country’s most productive uranium belts, and the region was one of the most intensely-mined areas in the U.S., according to Manuel Pino, a member of Acoma Pueblo and an organizer of the Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment (LACSE). Today, there are more than 1,000 remaining uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that have not been reclaimed or remediated.

An inactive uranium mine located on a sacred mountain will finally close

Located just a half-mile from the Village of San Mateo, Mount Taylor can be seen rising from the San Mateo mountains 100 miles in any direction. The mountain, whose peak stretches nearly 12,000 feet upward, sits east of Grants and has long been considered a place of cultural and spiritual significance. Mount Taylor is a pilgrimage destination for at least 30 indigenous communities, including the Navajo Nation, the Hopi and Zuni peoples, and the Acoma and Laguna Pueblos. The mountain is one of the four sacred mountains that make up the boundaries of the Dinétah land. It holds special significance for the Acoma people, where streams on the mountain feed into the Rio San Jose, one of the pueblo’s primary water sources. 

But Mount Taylor also sits atop one of the country’s largest uranium deposits, and was mined for decades.

NM’s power structure‚ then and now

Thanks to Gov. Susana Martinez’s vetoes of the higher education and legislative budgets, hostilities between the governor’s office and legislators over taxes and next year’s budget are playing out statewide, and daily in the headlines. Soon, the two parties will be facing off in the New Mexico Supreme Court over those two line-item budget vetoes. On the surface, the battle is over the budget. It also raises deeper questions about power and control: Can one person and a handful of executive office staffers and advisers wield ultimate power over the 112 legislators elected from communities across the state? But beneath the layers of campaigns, elections and public debates, there are also powerful people, companies and industries at work behind the scenes.

Around NM: Fossil fuels, uranium clean up, forests and new science papers

The Trump administration is blocking a new rule that would have changed how royalties from private coal mines on federal and tribal lands are calculated. When announcing the new rules in 2016, the U.S. Department of the Interior officials said they would provide greater consistency to private companies and higher royalty payments to taxpayers and tribal governments. Mining companies opposed the changes and sued in federal court. As reported last week by the Associated Press:
Rules in place since the 1980s have allowed companies to sell their fuel to affiliates and pay royalties to the government on that price, then turn around and sell the coal at higher prices, often overseas. Under the suspended rule change, the royalty rate would be determined at the time the coal is leased, and revenue will be based on the price paid by an outside entity, rather than an interim sale to an affiliated company.