Uranium Mining in Northwestern New Mexico:
The Grants Mining District in northwestern New Mexico was a key corner of uranium extraction and production from the 1950’s until the 1980’s. The Grants Mining District is an area of 100 miles by 25 miles which spans across Bernalillo, Sandoval, Cibola and McKinley counties.
More than 80 underground and open-pit projects were developed and operated in the Grants Mining District. “At various times during the productive life of the district as many as six uranium processing mills were built and operated by the Anaconda Company, Homestake Mining Company, Kerr-McGee, Phillips Petroleum, and United Nuclear. Historically, the Grants Mining District was the largest source of uranium in the United States.” (Uranium Resources Inc., 2015)
The New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division has identified 259 mining sites in New Mexico that produced uranium, 137 of which have no record of any reclamation. There are also three uranium superfund sites in the region. A Superfund site is an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people. (EPA, 2014)
When the boom economy of the uranium industry went bust in the 1980’s, thousands of mines were abandoned, along with the associated radioactive waste when the market price for uranium dropped. Today, higher prices for “yellowcake” continue to motivate stakeholders to acquire expired uranium claims and submerge test drills. Mining claims grant an exclusive right to mine a part of federal land. The most important deposits in New Mexico are within the Grants Mining District. More than 340 million pounds of uranium have been produced from these deposits from 1948 to 2002, accounting for 97% of the total production in New Mexico and more than 30% of the total production in the U.S. (McLemore, 2014)
Currently, all conventional ore must be processed at the only operating mill in the United States, the White Mesa
Mill near Blanding, Utah, or heap leached on site. A lack of mills to process the ore adds cost when producing uranium in New Mexico. Mining requires tremendous amounts of water to operate, resulting in massive dewatering of watersheds, current water contamination and extremely costly groundwater remediation. These impacts have communities deeply concerned about new proposed uranium mining in the area. For example, Rio Grande Resources (RGR) estimated both surface reclamation and a limited amount of groundwater restoration will cost $6.5 million at their Mr. Taylor Mine – a relatively moderate sized mine.
Mining companies continue to fail to discuss the permanent environmental impacts of their operations or what happens to communities and the local economy when the minerals run out. The companies tend to focus on how many jobs they are bringing to a community. However, workforce needs are drastically reduced when new mining technology such as In-Situ Leach (ISL) or In-Situ Recovery (ISR) mining are used, as is frequently the case in newer mining operations. “In situ leaching, also known as solution mining, or in situ recovery in North America, involves pumping water with chemicals into the earth to mobilize the uranium within the aquifer in order to extract it. Or leaving the ore where it is in the ground, and recovering the minerals from it by dissolving them and pumping the solution to the surface where the minerals can be recovered. Uranium ISL uses the native groundwater in the orebody which is fortified with a complexing agent and in most cases an oxidant. It is then pumped through the underground orebody to recover the minerals in it by leaching. Once the pregnant solution is returned to the surface, the uranium is recovered in much the same way as in any other uranium plant (mill).” (In Situ Leach (ISL) Mining of Uranium, 2014)
The transportation and storage of nuclear waste also continues to be extremely risky and unpredictable. Without adequate emergency evacuation plans along transportation routes, and lax safeguards many communities become vulnerable and disregarded.
Despite declarations that nuclear energy will help our nation reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, nuclear power uses fossil fuels at every step of the cycle from mining, milling, enriching, and the conversion to solid. The entire nuclear fuel cycle must be considered.
Unbiased, holistic health studies in contaminated communities within the Grants Mining District have never been conducted. Neither communities nor decision-makers have the tools they need to identify impacts of industrial processes on communities over time. However, families living nearby abandoned uranium mines and mills notice increased rates of cancers and other health problems. Gallup, a small, rural community in the Grants Mining District, is home to a cancer treatment center. State health assessments report that between 2008 and 2010, cancer was the leading cause of death in McKinley County, which is located directly west of Mount Taylor. (NM Health Dept., 2010) Some studies have occurred within the Navajo Nation. For example, the Navajo Birth Cohort program exclusively offers Navajo pregnant women prenatal monitoring for signs of uranium exposure.
The potential for physical hazards such as open adits and shafts, and the releases of radioactive contaminants to soil, surface water, and ground water from abandoned uranium mines is a fear for many rural communities stretched along the Grants Mining District. Uranium has both radioactive and heavy metal toxicity properties. The wide scattered array of abandoned uranium mines continues to pose severe health risks and adverse environmental effects in nearby communities. “If the exposure (to radiation) is of limited time and amount, the damage usually naturally repairs, but long-term exposure and high concentrations can cause kidney failure. Other health issues may be specifically related to milling processes (e.g. high sulfate concentrations in water).” (Ulmer-Scholle, 2014)
Western NM communities have been exposed to radioactive abandoned uranium waste for decades. Long-term exposure is linked to higher rates of cancer. “Several possible health effects are associated with human exposure to radiation from uranium. Because all uranium isotopes mainly emit alpha particles that have little penetrating ability, the main radiation hazard from uranium occurs when uranium compounds are ingested or inhaled. At the exposure levels typically associated with the handling and processing of uranium, the primary radiation health effect of concern is an increased probability of the exposed individual developing cancer during their lifetime. Cancer cases induced by radiation are generally indistinguishable from other “naturally occurring” cancers and occur years after the exposure takes place. The probability of developing a radiation-induced cancer increases with increasing uranium intakes.” (Uranium Health Effects).
The state has no system in place to monitor health conditions as it relates to the uranium waste sites or industrial processes. By understanding the impacts industrial processes have on communities over time, health studies provide insight into community planning that supports sustainable development. Almost all abandoned and newly proposed uranium mines exist in or near Indigenous communities. There are over 520 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation alone. In 2005, the Navajo Nation passed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act (DNRPA) which imposed a moratorium on uranium mining and processing on Navajo land. The 2012 Radioactive Materials Transportation Act (RMTA) regulates the transportation of uranium and other radioactive substances across Navajo Nation. Jackpile Mine – once the largest open pit mine in the world – is located directly north of Laguna Pueblo. In 2008, Laguna Pueblo declared a moratorium on uranium mining on their tribal land. Cultural and historical impacts need to be analyzed under the protection of the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act when extractive industries desecrate Indigenous sacred sites. For example, Mount Taylor located in Grants, NM is considered sacred to numerous Indigenous peoples in New Mexico and Arizona. It plays a vital role in cosmology and religious practices and is central to oral history stories and ceremonies. Uranium mining on Mt. Taylor jeopardizes the mental, physical, and spiritual health and balance of Indigenous communities.
With no permanent repository for nuclear waste worldwide and rising health disparities in uranium legacy mining and milling communities, why is new mining is still being considered? It is evident that there are adverse environmental, economic and social impacts as a result of uranium mining New Mexico.
Uranium was discovered in the Mt. Taylor area (about 60 miles west of Albuquerque) in 1968 and exploratory drilling identified an ore deposit extending nearly six miles. Chevron Corporation began commercial production at Mt. Taylor in 1986, initially shipping the ore to Chevron’s Panna Maria mill in south Texas for processing. More than eight million pounds of uranium were produced from the Mt. Taylor mine before the mine was placed on standby in 1989. The Mt. Taylor uranium mine project is a conventional underground mine that contains an in-place resource of over 100 million pounds of uranium – the largest uranium resource in the United States. At the moment, the deposit is being evaluated for development as an in situ leach (ISL) operation. (General Atomics, 2016) Currently, Rio Grande Resources’ (RGR) permit allows the water to be treated to human health standards and discharge to Lee Ranch. To send it anywhere else would requires a permit modification. There is a considerable amount of surplus water that is produced; more water than the city of Grants, the city of Gallup, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission uses. Although RGR doesn’t own the surplus water, it has a grandfathered water right under the Mine Dewatering Act to pump it through to other locations. At a December 4, 2015 state uranium public hearing in Grants, NM, the majority of those who spoke were adamantly opposed to a restart of mining at the Mt. Taylor mine due to environmental risks, health, and cultural concerns. (Helms, 2015)
In October 2009, the uranium company Strathmore Minerals submitted a mining permit application for Roca Honda Resources (RHR) in San Mateo, New Mexico, which is about 29 miles north of Grants. A mine permit decision is expected in 2016. If initiated, the proposed Roca Honda mine would be the largest uranium mine in the United States in over thirty years. Strathmore Minerals has since sold its share of Roca Honda to Energy Fuels Resources (the top uranium company in the U.S.) who jointly owns RHR with the Japanese uranium company Sumitomo. Originally, a new mill was also proposed to be built, but those plans changed and the White Mesa mill in Utah is likely to be used. (world-nuclear.org, 2015)
The Cibola National Forest (CNF) issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for Roca Honda mine to the public in March 2013. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is a document prepared to explore and describe the effects for proposed activities on the environment. “Environment,” in this case, is defined as the natural and physical environment and the relationship of people with that environment. The Forest Service received nearly 9,000 public comments on the DEIS and said that 98% of those were in opposition to the mine. The EPA found that the DEIS had “inadequate information,” and recommended that the Forest Service revise it to address concerns about impacts to groundwater. Since then the CNF and its third party contractor have been preparing responses to comments on the DEIS and working through the Section 106 Consultation process as required by the National Historic Preservation Act. RHR recently requested that the final EIS include evaluation of an alternate mine dewatering pipeline that would deliver water into the Rio San Jose (the only surface water in Cibola County). In response to this request, the CNF has indicated that preparation of a Supplemental EIS will be necessary. The United States Forest Service (USFS) projects that issuance of a final EIS and completion of the Memorandum of Agreement required under the Section 106 consultation process will occur in the fourth quarter 2016. (Energy Fuels- Roca Honda, 2015)
The largest release of radioactive material in United States history occurred on July 16, 1979, on the Navajo Nation in Churchrock, NM. More than 1,100 tons of uranium mining tailings and 100 million gallons of radioactive material emptied through a collapsed dam and into the Puerco River, running directly through numerous communities. Uranium Resources Incorporated (URI) currently holds a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) source material license to build and operate an In-Situ Recovery (ISR) uranium processing facility on company-owned property in McKinley County, NM. The license allows for an ISR process at the Churchrock and Crownpoint projects that together hold nearly 12.6 million tons of in-place mineralized uranium material. The license allows for the production of up to 1 million pounds per year from Churchrock Section 8 until a successful demonstration of restoration is made; after which the quantity of production can be increased and exploration on other properties covered by the license can begin. Total production under the license is limited to 3 million pounds per year. (Uranium Resources Inc., 2015) The license seeks to begin in situ leach (ISL) uranium mining in Churchrock. The Churchrock mine is also located in a multijurisdictional “checkerboard” area where there are various land statuses owned or managed by different entities. “Companies target areas adjacent to the Nation, but not on Navajo Indian country, our own laws prohibiting new uranium mining cannot protect people in the checkerboard lands.” (Minard, 2014)
By Talia Boyd, CVNMEF Western NM Organizer