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Moquino Community Gets Involved in Uranium Mill Tailings Decision

What are Uranium Mill Tailings?
Uranium mill tailings are large-volume hazard-laced radioactive wastes. Mill tailings contain more than 99% of the volume and 85% of the radioactivity of the uranium ore milled. Because uranium mills use chemical processes to selectively remove only uranium from the ore, contaminants in uranium mill tailings include, in most cases:

  • more than 99% of the radium, thorium, radon and other radionuclides produced by radioactive decay of uranium;
  • more than 99% of the heavy metals- such as cadmium, lead, selenium or molybdenum - in the ore; and
  • hazardous concentrations of mill process reagents such as sulfuric acid, chloride and a variety of organic chemicals.

In 2003, residents of the centuries-old Village of Moquino on the Cebolleta Land Grant in northwest New Mexico stood up at a public hearing on a uranium mill tailings pollution problem in order to protect their water for centuries to come. This action arose out of the resident's concern about contamination seeping from a 2-million ton waste pile at the long-closed L-Bar uranium operation just two miles away from Moquino homes and water wells.

The L-Bar uranium mill operated from 1977 - 1981 by SOHIO Western Mining Company, now a part of global mining giant Rio Tinto's Kennecott Minerals subsidiary. Its waste pile has been undergoing reclamation and ground water pollution control activities for more than 20 years. Since the early 1980s, groundwater monitoring data shows that uranium, selenium, sulfate, chloride and other contaminants have leaked through the dam beyond SOHIO property onto portions of the Cebolleta Land Grant.

Moquino and the Cebolleta Land Grant are located north of Laguna Indian Pueblo, 50 miles west of Albuquerque. The 200,000-acre Cebolleta Land Grant was conveyed to settlers and their heirs by the King of Spain in the year 1800, though settlers attempted to establish homesteads in the area at least as early as 1743. The L-Bar property is part of a 55,000-acre ranch acquired from the heirs of the Cebolleta Land Grant in the 1940s, despite the heirs' efforts to legally reverse the acquisition on the grounds of a taking by "adverse possession."

The L-Bar uranium mill tailings pile was constructed with the downstream side of its half-mile-long dam less than 100 yards from the remaining portion of the Land Grant, close to the village of Moquino. Uranium and selenium-contaminated seepage that has flowed through and under the dam reached the Land Grant shortly after mill operations began. Those contaminants have continued to spread, and are projected to spread for decades to come, in spite of Kennecott's multi-million dollar groundwater remediation efforts. Since the spreading seepage plume can be neither fully contained nor fully extracted, Kennecott bought a 200-acre parcel from the Cebolleta Land Grant Board of Trustees that includes the contaminated area, and a seep, or spring, where water from the shallow aquifer and the L-Bar seepage support a pasture area.

L-Bar's corporate owners acquired the area affected by their pollution after acknowledging that they could not clean-up the contamination they caused to meet existing New Mexico groundwater regulation standards. Newly provided hydrologic models show that the spreading contamination could not leave their property -as expanded by the purchase of the contaminated part of the land grant. Kennecott petitioned the Water Quality Control Commission to approve weakened groundwater protection standards for the L-Bar site. The petition for these weakened standards, proposed "Alternative Abatement Standards" (AASs).

Moquino residents, members of Moquino Mutual Domestic Water Consumer's and Water User's Association (MDWCA), participated in the hearing due to their concern over the effectiveness of the clean-up remedy for the L-Bar site, and the potential for future impacts on water and land, including the land and water that is part of their cultural heritage but now owned by Kennecott. The Moquino residents received legal counsel from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (www.nmelc.org), and technical services from Southwest Research and Information Center. The hearing before the New Mexico Water Quality Commission was convened to address the L-Bar proposal for AASs that would allow significantly higher levels of contaminants to remain in place than groundwater protection levels established by the Commission's regulations. L-Bar's current owners initiated the request for AASs based its consultants' determination that all the contaminants released at the site could not be removed using existing technology at a feasible cost.

The decision on the L-Bar petition, issued by the Commission on July 14, 2003, recognized the long-term water quality interests of Moquino by adding the community's drinking water wells to the perpetual monitoring program approved by the Commission as part of the "alternative" to full clean-up of contaminants released by the L-Bar tailings facility. The Commission ordered that:

  • "Ground water monitoring in…Moquino's wells shall continue as long as any of the wells contain any of the constituents…that exceed standards found in" the Commission's regulations;
  • "The two water supply wells used by Moquino shall be sampled for the same analytes and at the same frequency as those in…L-Bar's long-term stewardship plan;" and
  • "Monitoring results…shall be distributed to…Moquino [in addition to NMED]."

The decision also addressed other defects and areas of uncertainty in the L-Bar AAS petition identified by Moquino residents, counsel and supporting technical testimony including:

  • The need for specific long-term erosion monitoring measures - "Owner shall give special consideration to the condition of vegetation on the impound[ment] cover. Cap measurement devises or cap markers shall be installed across the cap. If significant erosion that is capable of compromising the design function [of the cap] is discovered, Owner will develop an action plan to address the situation. Possible actions include reseeding, recontouring and selective armoring of affected areas;"
  • The need for specific cover vegetation monitoring measures - "Annual inspections incorporating typical or standard vegetation measurement methodologies to determine species, composition, density, and cover will be conducted to verify the continued condition of the site;"
  • The need to consider future technical innovations - "If future technology presents methods for remediation, reclamation or restoration, the Commission encourages Owner to implement it;" and
  • The need for financial assurance to guarantee long-term protection - "The Commission urges the relevant parties to ensure that the financial assurance is adequate to guarantee satisfaction with the [long-term stewardship plan] requirements, this Order, and the human health and welfare of New Mexicans."

Issuance of the July 14, 2003 Order by the Commission allows Kennecott to transfer the ownership and responsibility for the L-Bar waste site to the Department of Energy (DOE) and approves the alternative abatement standards "for perpetuity." As a result, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the only agency responsible for enforcement of site inspection, maintenance and control requirements for all time, except for those items identified in Commission's Order.

The Order was sought by Rio Tinto/Kennecott to provide a basis for DOE to acquire the final tailings repository as provided for by the Uranium Mill Tailings Remediation Control Act of 1978 (UMTRCA). Previously, DOE refused to accept ownership and responsibility for the site until New Mexico adopted AASs compatible with NRC site-specific standards, called "alternative control limits," approved on the basis of a petition showing the technical and economic infeasibility of removing contaminants released by L-Bar.

The Order also allow the transfer of ownership to the federal government of hundreds of acres of former Cebolleta Land Grant land acquired by L-Bar after it was contaminated by their operation. Land grant land is a fundamental part of the heritage of the traditional Hispanic communities of New Mexico. The loss of the land and its use a permanent waste disposal site has been a source of distress to many of the more than 300 Cebolleta Land Grant heirs.

The end game for waste site reclamation, final decisions on final site ownership and long-term responsibility such as the Commission's Order on the L-Bar uranium mill tailings sites, often take decades to evolve. For this uranium mill, a 25-year period has elapsed since UMTRCA was enacted, requiring its clean up. During that period 50-odd uranium mill tailings sites have undergone elaborate and costly remediation efforts, including the seven tailings piles near communities in New Mexico.

The technical services provided to the community of Moquino related to the L-Bar tailings is but one of many community-oriented technical services on uranium mill tailings provided by Southwest Research staff. Tailings, including the United Nuclear's Church Rock tailings site and Homestake Mining's Milan tailings site, have been the subject of staff research for many years. Uranium mill tailings research has also been a focus of international activities of Southwest Research staff and include work conducted on behalf of local and regional non-governmental organizations on uranium mill tailings sites in Ontario, Canada, Germany, and Russia.

For additional information contact:

Paul Robinson, Research Director
Southwest Research and Information Center
email: sricpaul@earthlink.net

Bill Hocker and Leanne Padilla-Hocker
Moquino Mutual Domestic Water Users Association
PO Box 999
Paguate, NM 87040
email: moquino@msn.com

Rod Ventura, Staff Attorney
New Mexico Environmental Law Center
1405 Luisa St.
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 989-9022
email: rventura@nmelc.org

Kevin Myers
New Mexico Environment Department
Ground Water Quality Bureau
Runnels Building
1190 St. Francis St.
Santa Fe, NM 87502
(505) 476-3506
email: kevin_myers@nmenv.state.nm.us

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