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Native Sun News: Uranium mining poses threat to sacred sites

Filed Under: Environment | National | Politics
More on: gao, mining, native sun news, new mexico, sacred sites, uranium

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Adherents of MASE Petuuche Gilbert (left) and Jonnie Head show map of uranium mining and milling contamination during Third Extreme Energy Extraction Summit in New Mexico. Photo by/Talli Nauman

Abandoned uranium mines threaten ancient cultures By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

Part I

ALBUQUERQUE — A bird’s-eye view of the corridor stretching from Mt. Taylor westward to Chaco Canyon is filled with sacred sites and ancient roads made by the native Puebloan and Diné peoples, who have inhabited the Four Corners area of modern-day New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado for time immemorial.

Overlapping that corridor is the Grants Mineral Belt, an expanse filled with abandoned uranium mines and plenty of unexploited uranium ore that corporate investors currently want to access for profit.

The mining threatens the centuries-old cultures and traditions of farming, ranching and living on the land, prompting groups of concerned citizens of the U.S. Southwest to band together in the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, or MASE.

“Our footprints are all over the whole area,” said Laguna Pueblo MASE adherent June Lorenzo at the May 2-6 Third Extreme Energy Extraction Summit, which attracted about 100 people from around the United States to Albuquerque, as well as to nearby rural and indigenous communities, with the promise of bolstering community resilience to the risks from escalated deployment of nuclear and fossil fuels.

MASE and a number of other organizations have declared their intention to resist any new uranium mining until the legacy of radioactive and heavy metal waste from abandoned uranium mines and mills is cleaned up.

The MASE Nuclear-Free Zone Initiative is a pledge to “work in solidarity with all people who wish to break free of their nuclear fuel chains and dependency on non-renewable, polluting sources of energy and move towards the development of renewable and sustainable energy that does not threaten the public health, public water supplies, or our special landscapes.”

It joins the Navajo Nation’s laws that prohibit uranium mining and transportation of uranium. More than 10,000 abandoned uranium mines have been identified across the United States, primarily in the Western region, and more than 10 million people live within a 50-mile radius of one, members of another organization, Clean Up the Mines, said April 22, in launching a national campaign to make reclamation a requisite for any new permits.

They are looking for federal legislators to sponsor a bill to that effect in the wake of a $5.15 billion settlement between Kerr-McGee, the U.S. Government, the Navajo Nation and others, which provides cleanup monies for a percentage of the abandoned uranium mine sites nationwide.

On May 5, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, released a report requested by members of the Congress, analyzing the results of a five-year plan federal agencies undertook in 2008 to help the Navajo Nation target and address contaminated abandoned mines, structures, water sources, former processing sites, and other uranium-related problems.

It notes: “Four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from mines on the Navajo reservation primarily for developing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. For over 30 years, the Navajo people have lived with the environmental and health effects of uranium contamination from this mining.”

The GAO found that the agencies met or exceeded most of the targets, making progress on assessing contaminated mines, rebuilding contaminated structures, providing safe water supplies, and cleaning up some high-priority sites.

The office recommended Congress consider requiring agencies to develop an estimate of the remaining scope of work, time frames, and costs “to fully address uranium contamination.” It also recommended that the Bureau of Indian Affairs address its project management challenges, and agencies incorporate key practices into their coordinated outreach strategy.

The members of Congress who called for the report noted that it shows the remaining cleanup work “is extensive and will require significant resources over many years,” according to a written statement from them.

“Reasons agencies met the targets were primarily because additional federal and other resources were dedicated to these efforts compared with prior years,” the GAO said. “For example, from 2008 through 2012, EPA spent $22 million to test and replace contaminated houses, compared with $1.5 million spent in the preceding 5 years.”

The report was requested by Reps. Henry A. Waxman, Peter DeFazio, Frank Pallone, Jr., Colleen Hanabusa, Raul M. Grijalva, Ben Ray Lujan, and Sens. Martin Heinrich and Edward J. Markey.

“The pervasive uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation is an American tragedy,” said Waxman, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “GAO’s report confirms that federal agencies have made progress in addressing this shameful legacy but that a huge amount of work remains to be done. The federal government has a moral obligation to sustain its commitment to right this wrong,” he added.

DeFazio, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said federal agencies need to “move as quickly as possible to clean up abandoned mines and ensure safe drinking water for the Navajo people. And they must engage and work cooperatively with Navajo communities,” he added.

Pallone, senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, called it “unacceptable that the Navajo people have been living with the enduring environmental and health impacts of uranium contamination for decades.” He said. “We have a responsibility to correct this deplorable chapter in our history, and … ensure that cleanup of the Navajo Nation remains a priority.”

The report stems from an October 2007 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to examine the adverse health and environmental impacts affecting the Navajo people in the wake of decades of uranium mining and milling around the largest reservation in the United States.

The federal agencies involved in the cleanup currently are developing a new five-year plan to continue the environmental remediation and public health efforts.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) is about to wrap up a report to be submitted to Congress in July on the location of abandoned uranium mining sites. Stakeholder input is being sought on “historical and current information needed … to perform surveillance and maintenance activities, according to authorities.

(Contact Talli Nauman, NSN Health and Environment Editor at

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