The long-awaited uranium mine cleanup leaves the question of jobs

Thousands of uranium mines lie abandoned across New Mexico and the Southwest.

Now, lawsuit settlement money from big business and the US government is being pumped in to clean them up.

Could this mean jobs and a healthier environment for new Mexicans?

New Mexico In Depth editor Marjorie Childress has been following this story closely and spoke with KUNM to find out how that money is going to be spent.

MARJORIE CHILD: Well, first, I just want to note that we’re talking about decades in which abandoned radioactive uranium mines littered the southwest. In New Mexico, there are about 1100 sites grouped in the Grants mineral belt, which stretches over 90 miles from Laguna Pueblo almost to Gallup — many of them on tribal land. This means many mines will eventually be cleared over the next decade. But, it is important to remember that these are mines full of radioactive contamination. Children have grown up playing in these landscapes, families and livestock live in these areas. The houses turn out to be radioactive. It is therefore urgent to clean up these mines.

And along with the cleanup that will come from that money, there is the potential for jobs for tribal residents and other local residents in an area of ​​the state that needs jobs. The challenge is to help companies and workers get the specialized training they need to work at radioactive sites and access contracting opportunities. This is where in New Mexico lawmakers hope the state can help by playing a coordinating and communicating role. They passed a bill this year which creates positions in several state agencies to focus specifically on uranium remediation and remediation-related economic development.

KUNM: It took years to get there, didn’t it? Why didn’t this happen before, these cleanups?

CHILD: Well, why it took so long is a very good question. The industry emerged in the 1950s, in fact, because the federal government promised it would buy all uranium mined in the United States at a guaranteed price. The industry lingered for about a decade after the government ended this program. And then it pretty much closed down in the early 80s. And the companies just packed up and left. They left their contamination behind.

This was before many of the environmental regulations we have today that require companies and extractive industries to set aside money to clean up their operations. And really, it was the concerted community activism of people living in those communities for decades that ultimately spurred federal action in the 2000s. And it took years after that for responsible corporations to be found and negotiated. with and, in some cases, legal settlements are reached to make that money really start flowing. And the federal government also started to allocate money every year, but in small amounts compared to the needs.

KUNM: Let’s talk about the damage these mines have already caused. Lately, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez spoke in an online presentation on the impact of abandoned uranium mines. Marjorie, you spoke to some people involved with your article for New Mexico In Depth. What did they tell you?

CHILD: Well you know, Dariel Yazzie runs the Navajo EPA Superfund program. He’s candid about why he thinks it’s taken so long to call it environmental injustice and racism. You can read more about his personal story in the article we published on nmindepth.com, But you know, Yazzie, what he brings to his role is his own personal story. I mean, he grew up in a family that worked in the uranium mines. His father worked in the uranium mines. His father has permanent health problems, the types of health problems that research has shown stems from continued exposure to uranium and Yazzie himself is a cancer survivor. He grew up playing in uranium-contaminated landscapes. He hopes that in the future, scientists, agencies and members of the Navajo community can have a meaningful influence on how cleanup design plans are created. So that these cleanups are done in a way that protects their families and communities in the future.

KUNM: Obviously, this cleaning is an important process to start. Marjorie Childress is the editor of New Mexico In Depth. Thanks to be here.

CHILD: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Clifton L. Boyd