MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Uranium...The Problems Continue

Uranium has been a focus of Southwest Research and Information Center's (SRIC) work for many decades. Many people think uranium is not an important topic anymore because we don't have new nuclear power plants. But for many communities it is the past mining - the cleanup problems, water pollution, and health problems - and the fear of future uranium mining that makes uranium a topic that will never go away.

CRUMP team members standing next to the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) Northeast Church Rock Mine waste dump. 

The Southwest bore the brunt of uranium mining in the 1940s-1990s, and its aftermath still haunts many communities. There are untold numbers of uranium mines and mills that are still unreclaimed - left open to the elements for the air to blow radioactive dust into homes and for water to spread it down streams and into the groundwater. With many sites, the companies have ceased to exist, passing cleanup costs to the states. Some sites are being cleaned up under the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA, see page 5). While at others, the mining companies are cleaning up the sites under state mining reclamation rules. But mine and mill tailings clean up can be as basic as putting a layer of soil over it and covering it with vegetation to keep it from blowing off (but not necessarily from eroding away). Or it can be as complex as adding liners to prevent erosion into streams and groundwater, with monitoring wells and erosion control devices. And unfortunately, one cleanup method involves raising the minimum contaminant level - in acknowledgement that the water will never be fit to drink.

It is the fear of new mining has kept SRIC active in the communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock, New Mexico. Mitchell Capitan came to us asking what we knew about Hydro Resources Inc. (HRI) (see page 6). That one conversation has led to a decade-long struggle assisting Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) to prevent this new type of uranium mining called in situ leach (ISL) mining. The communities fears not only the contamination of their clean, pristine drinking water, but the spread of health problems related to uranium that has plagued the last few generations.

Two newly constructed homes next to the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) Church Rock mine waste dump.

It was natural that health would become a focus for SRIC as a result of the many years of working on this issue. SRIC's Chris Shuey is working with Navajo health authorities and others to gather data on the health effects of uranium. For years, doctors in these affected communities have watched people develop lung cancer, stomach cancer, and even kidney diseases, wondering if the past uranium mining have caused some of these health problems. No reliable studies exist today, but we hope to change that (see ENDAUM sidebar).

As a sign of the increased work on this issue, particularly on the Navajo Nation, we have added a new staff person: Harris Arthur, Navajo Community Liaison (see page 9). He will be working with the local communities, medical staff, and the various government entities to find solutions to some of the problems plaguing the Navajo Nation.

Other work by SRIC staff can also be found in this issue of Voices. Don Hancock's continuing effort to ensure health and safety are a priority at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP); Frances Ortega is working on the New Mexico Environment Department's new focus on Environmental Justice; and Paul Robinson works with communities in Russia on mine cleanup.

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"Some people in the community were behind mining, [they] thought, mining is good for money. Some Navajo families were compensated for [past] mining on their lands. They were rich for a while. But it seems like to Navajos or native people, it's not good for us. As of today, I've seen these families suffer; many are gone from alcoholism, and [many] didn't spend the money in the right way. There's nothing there, now they're suffering again. This is almost where we're headed again. In the long run, I think it's not made for the native people to be so rich off the Earth. Uranium mining, it's like it's an omen."

--Mitchell Capitan,
Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining

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SRIC is part of the Stop Forever WIPP Coalition.
The nuclear waste dump is permitted to operate until 2024, but the federal government want to expand the amount and types of waste allowed with NO end date.
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