By Pat Sheely, published in the Gallup Independent
I would like to respond to a recent article in the Independent titled “Misunderstanding or disconnect?” that ran on March 29.
Over a year ago, McKinley County residents asked the McKinley County Commission to support a three-year moratorium on uranium mining. I was at that meeting and I have reviewed the audio tape of the meeting. Our plan was that this “pause” on recently proposed mining would allow us time to explore how the county can support a healthy community if uranium mining is to return to our area. Uranium mining remains a threat to our community. The new proposals for in situ mining are just as bad as the past and are a very real threat to our aquifers.
We wanted to bring together families who live near the many abandoned mine sites that already exist, county officials, county commissioners, and health and safety experts to fully examine the effects of uranium mining and find solutions for the issues that we continue to face from previous mining as well as to discuss what the resumption of uranium mining would mean to Gallup and McKinley County.
I support the many Navajo community members who have been trying to get the radioactive waste that continues to cause harm in their communities cleaned up. This has been going on since the mines closed in the 1980’s. The organization I volunteer with, Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund, has been supporting a coalition of citizens and community groups to bring these issues to the forefront and get the county commission involved. As our elected decision- makers, we knew we needed them to be an equal partner in this process with us. In today’s political climate, it is not appropriate
to think that the federal government will “take care of things.” Action needs to begin at the grassroots level. That is where CVNM Education Fund and other community partners are coming from.
Unfortunately, the county commission didn’t support the proposed moratorium. While we disagree with their assessment about legal challenges, my fellow volunteers and I were elated when, at a public commission meeting on March 14 last year, Commissioner Bill Lee suggested a formal blue ribbon task force on the issue without a moratorium.
“I would like to see some kind of blue ribbon task force worked on through this committee that can actually begin to apply pressure to make things happen the way they need to make them happen. That is where we are today. I would encourage us to maybe formalize some meetings and make this happen,” said Commissioner Lee during the March 14, 2017, meeting.
The community members who had filled the hearing room and given nearly two hours of public testimony in support of the moratorium burst into applause. I left the meeting thinking that the Commissioners would put together a task force.
In line with the Open Meetings Act, the commission could only vote on what was already on the agenda: a previous ordinance calling for the moratorium and an alternate weakened resolution the commission had proposed and passed without enough public notice at a Jan. 3 commission meeting. The weakened resolution expressed the commission’s support for our coalition work and offered their help to connect us with state and federal decision-making agencies.
We appreciate that they expressed support for our work, but we already engaged our state and federal agencies. We were intentional in our request for a formal process with our own local county commission.
We clarified Commissioner Lee’s intentions and even had a conversation at that meeting about how we could move forward to formalize a task force. After Commissioner Lee directed us to work with County Attorney Doug Decker on an additional resolution, Mr. Decker spoke up.
“It probably should be a memorandum of understanding forming the blue ribbon task force,” Mr. Decker said.
An MOU would give the task force the full backing of the county commission, lending it legitimacy in requests for information and ensuring the public meetings are part of the permanent public record.
The McKinley County Commission made a verbal commitment at the March 14, 2017, meeting to create a formal blue ribbon task force on uranium mining. Before that happened, they backed away from their promise and are now claiming they made no such promise. Double talk and back door dealing such as this does the county as a whole a disservice and disrespects those whose lives are impacted daily by legacy uranium waste and would be directly impacted by proposed new mining.
You can listen to the full audio of that meeting and the commission’s commitments online at https:// cvnm.link/314McKinleyCoMeet. Pat Sheely has lived in Gallup for 25 years and is a member of Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund’s McKinley Environmental Justice Action Team.