Support Builds for McKinley County to Form Promised Uranium Task Force

CVNMEF Western NM Program Director Talia Boyd, left, kicks off a community forum in McKinley County. The event brought together concerned residents and organizations to discuss legacy uranium waste and ways to protect their health from future mining.

In September, Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund (CVNM Education Fund) held a community forum to update the public on the McKinley County Commission’s promise for a uranium blue ribbon task force. The proposed task force would study the impacts of uranium mining on the local community and create an inclusive vision for the future that reflects the community’s long-standing values for protecting their health, air, land and water. People from many communities in the area attended the forum, which included guest speakers from the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, the New Mexico Social Justice and Equity Institute and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Our guest speakers highlighted important milestones on how communities have rallied together to pass a uranium mining moratorium on the nearby Navajo Nation. In addition, we discussed how various health disparities and new proposed mining in McKinley County have spurred and increased community dialogue about preventing new uranium mining.

Lasting impacts and the threat of new mining have also inspired community members to take local actions and work to assess social, environmental and economic disparities, including policy. This is because some state and federal level protections are in place, but mining does not look at the cumulative impact of multiple industrial projects on a community. For example, permits are granted individually, meaning there is no big picture of the impacts on community health, air, soil and water quality. Communities are totally left out of that process. If there are hearings for public comment or “open house” meetings with regulatory entities, information is very technical and hard to understand, making it difficult for communities to ask follow-up questions. There is a huge communication gap between regulatory entities and impacted communities, and this is one of the reasons communities are pushing local decision-makers to act.

Yet, the McKinley County Commission continues to backpedal on their promise for a blue ribbon task force. Instead, they have disengaged from working with communities who want to forge ahead and work together for a long-term vision for the county. Many people living in impacted communities at the forum spoke about their experiences, concerns and the unrelenting need to educate decision-makers and elect leaders who understand communities facing uranium mining and legacy waste. At the county level, there is also change on the horizon: two commissioners are leaving the Commission, which leaves communities wondering if new leadership at the county level will act in a more meaningful way after the 2018 election.

In the meantime, we are continuing to do outreach with Navajo chapters and communities. Recently, two resolutions were passed to support a blue ribbon task force by the Eastern Navajo Agency Council and the Dineh Medicine Men Association. We continue to receive requests from Navajo chapter houses and community organizations for presentations on our efforts at the county level and we hope to gain additional letters of support.

A big part of educating decision-makers and the public is supporting community members in telling their own story of how they are impacted. We are also working to support and capture community-led stories and messages by holding or attending local storytelling events. Together, we can send a strong message to the McKinley County Commission that the community wants their leaders to hear them and reflect their values.

By Talia Boyd, CVNMEF Western NM Director