Thursday, July 16, 2009

Abandoned uranium mines pose health risk to New Mexicans

Study: Increased likelihood of kidney disease and diabetes among people who live close to mines

By Marjorie Childress 5/7/09

ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico legislators are in Washington D.C. this week to press the federal government to help clean up hundreds of abandoned uranium mines that dot the state’s landscape.

The trip comes on the heels of an appropriation of $150,000 included in this year’s state budget to help complete the painstaking work of assessing the extent of the problem, said Bill Brancard, director of the state’s Mining and Minerals Division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

So far, his agency has listed 259 mines that have reported uranium production at some point. And there may be many more than that, he said.

The agency has a second list of 400 “uranium occurrences,” where uranium mines saw “significant exploration” but from which no production was ever reported to the state, Brancard said.

According to Jon Goldstein, deputy secretary of the state Environment Department, the mines cover a wide variety in scale, but most operated without regulation.

“These mines range from full-scale mines to what’s commonly known as a dog hole, where a prospector was going out and trying to do it on his own,” he said. “And when most of these ‘legacy’ mines were operating, there weren’t the rules there are today. The Clean Water Act hadn’t been passed and the New Mexico Environment Department didn’t exist.”

The abandoned mines are found literally all over the state. But the overwhelming concentration is in the “Grants uranium belt” in western New Mexico. Uranium mining began in earnest on Navajo land in the 1950s and lasted until the late 1980s. This was the “Grants uranium boom,” Brancard explained.

The uranium, or “yellow cake,” was produced for the federal government’s nuclear program in the early decades then became an important fuel source for electricity producers.

Of the 259 mines that reported uranium production to the state, 137 have no record of any kind of clean up or restoration work. Those mines are the targets of the assessment being undertaken by the mining and minerals agency.

The agency is visiting the sites to assess the condition of the physical landscape–whether there are open mine shafts or waste piles, for instance — and to do radiology surveys. These surveys take readings of mining features and compare them with background readings to determine a mine’s radioactivity.

Data on the health impacts of uranium mining on communities is hard to come by. While studies have been done on miners themselves, studies looking at the effects on entire communities have been limited in scope.

Dr. Johnnye Lewis, director of the Community Environmental Health Department in the College of Pharmacy at UNM’s Health Sciences Center, is currently heading up an effort to assess the health impact of uranium mines in 20 chapters of the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation.

Thirty percent of the people who live in those Navajo chapters don’t have access to regulated drinking water, Lewis said. Since many haul their water, one goal is to find out which sources are clean.

In addition to proximity, Lewis’s research is also looking at how people come into contact with mines.

“Some of the mines don’t even look like mines,” Lewis explained. “You’d never know they’re there or might not recognize them for what they are.”

“No wonder then that people use abandoned ore in their homes, that kids swim in contaminated water or play around mine waste, or that people shelter livestock in abandoned mines,” she added.

Lewis’s team has only finished the first stage of the study, but initial findings show an increase in likelihood of kidney disease and diabetes among people who live close to mines, she said.

The findings have to take into account a higher prevalence of these health problems among Navajo and Hispanic populations in general, she said. However, a longterm medical monitoring program conducted in Fernald, Ohio has also shown an increase in kidney disease among people living near and drinking water contaminated by uranium. The initial findings in New Mexico support those results, she added.

Return of uranium mining?

There’s currently no uranium mining in the state, but in recent years there’s been renewed interest by industry to dig back in. This is due to a surge in prices in response to increased global demand. Between 2003 and 2007, the price skyrocketed from under $25 a pound to over $175, and then fell back down to around $50 a pound today.

Goldstein said the “amount of chatter has decreased” since the drop from the high in 2007, but that there is currently one active mine permit in the works.

The Mount Taylor Uranium Mine is owned by Rio Grande Resources, and is located northeast of Grants, just outside the Mount Taylor Traditional Cultural Property boundary, which was established last year. The company’s website says the mine site contains the “largest uranium resource” in the U.S., with an estimated 100 million pounds of uranium.

Goldstein said when the mine was closed in the late 1980’s, it flooded with water which the company will now have to pump out and treat in order to resume mining, something the mine owners are trying to figure out how to do now.

“It was operated in the 1970s up to the late 1980s,” Goldstein said. “A lot of mines have to pump ground water to keep dry. They turned the pumps off in this mine in 1989, and let it flood. That water is contaminated, so we’re waiting to hear from them how they intend to treat it.”

The mine also faces a lot of scrutiny from the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, and the pueblos of Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna, which consider Mount Taylor a sacred site and pushed for its designation by the state last year as a traditional cultural property, as a direct result of the increased interest in uranium mining.

One of the primary leaders in getting the mine assessment funds appropriated this year, state Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint, said that the prospect of new uranium mining in the state is concerning given the many mines that haven’t been cleaned up.

While the federal government has shouldered the responsibility for cleaning up uranium mills, they’ve paid little attention to the mines themselves, she said.

“Over the last few years during the interim [Senate] Indian Affairs Committee has held joint sessions at which we’ve discussed the renewed interest by industry in uranium mining,” Lovejoy said.

“But in these places where the mining might resume, like the Ambrosia Lake area near Grants, or the Churchrock and Crownpoint areas, a lot of sites haven’t been cleaned up.”

Lovejoy said she’s toured the areas to see some of the abandoned sites.

“It’s appalling, and we want to know why the state and the federal government haven’t made it a priority to clean them up.”

Lovejoy carried a Senate Memorial urging the federal government to clean up the mines, and this week she joins the delegation of five other legislators in Washington to drive the point home.

In addition to speaking with members of Congress about the problem, the legislators are making the rounds at federal agencies, including the Departments of Interior and Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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