Friday, August 7, 2009

Push is on for mine cleanup funds to go to uranium sites

By Sue Major Holmes, Associated Press Writer

The name Poison Canyon offers a hint of what's faced by those trying to clean up abandoned uranium mines in the West.

The area north of the village of Milan contains some of the 259 abandoned uranium sites in New Mexico that need cleanup. State officials are pressuring the federal government to direct more money to those areas because of their unique hazard of radioactivity.

"In this case, a pile of rocks is more than just a pile of rocks," said New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division Director Bill Brancard.

There are hundreds of thousands of safety issues at abandoned hardrock mines in 13 western states, according to the Government Accountability Office. Thousands of sites, many dating to the 19th century, also are considered environmentally damaged.

The GAO lists about 800 abandoned hardrock mine sites in New Mexico and says at least one-fourth have environmental problems such as radioactivity or chemical contamination. Half of Wyoming's 956 sites are environmentally degraded, as are 9,900 of Arizona's 50,000 abandoned sites and 5,200 of California's 47,000-plus sites.

Exposure to uranium dust can cause kidney toxicity, which can lead to acute kidney failure; exposure to radiation from uranium increases the chances of developing cancer, according to the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Until two years ago, states could use abandoned mine cleanup grants on any site considered a serious threat to public health and safety, but the Bush administration interpreted changes Congress made in the law to mean most money should go to cleaning up coal mines.

New Mexico is more interested in abandoned mines for hardrock -- such as gold, lead or uranium -- and wants Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to reverse the solicitor general's opinion.

Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Salazar, called the matter "an important issue that has many implications for the West," and said Salazar was reviewing it.

New Mexico received $3.8 million this year from an expected $20 million over the next six years for abandoned mines and mills. Only $800,000 of this year's appropriation can go to hardrock sites.

"A lot of what we're doing now is trying to get a grasp on how big the problem is, how much disturbance is there, how high are the radiological readings, and ultimately try to figure out how much work needs to be done at these mines," Brancard said.

But, he said, "The scope of concerns related to hardrock and uranium mines is pretty vast," and $20 million isn't enough.

The Navajo Nation, which lists 520 abandoned uranium sites in Navajo country, is worried about an Obama administration proposal to eliminate a $142 million program for states and tribes certified as having completed coal mine remediation.

"We can't just do away with this program. Our (Navajo) Nation, we still have concerns with abandoned uranium mine sites," said Madeline Roanhorse, department manager for the Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Program and Uranium Mill Tailings Removal Action Program.

According to her agency, without the federal program no one will be closing old mines on the reservation.

Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, said the tribe was certified several years ago to use the funds for such purposes as uranium cleanup.

Etsitty said it's in the tribe's best interest to work with the state to get continued funding because of the amount of work left.

The focus of the Abandoned Mine Lands Program is reclamation, and "in a lot of instances reclamation is not the same as remediation," he said. Reclamation removes physical hazards, but remediation looks at environmental problems, such as removing contaminated soil or studying groundwater concerns.

"That's the other shoe that still hasn't dropped yet," Etsitty said. "We know now a lot more about the contaminants in the soil and the ground. But we don't know how this is now potentially impacting our groundwater resources."

Robinson Kelly, vice president of the tribe's Church Rock Chapter in New Mexico, complained at a public hearing in June about a federal government proposal to cover but leave radioactive uranium tailings at one site.

"We don't want it just covered," he said during a demonstration last month marking the 30th anniversary of a tailings spill that sent millions of gallons of acidic water into the Rio Puerco.

"How long is that cover going to last? When it deteriorates, it's going to start emitting radiation," Kelly said.

Uranium has become a focus partly because of concern that new mines are being considered when old ones have never been cleaned up.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced legislation this spring that would establish a fund to reclaim abandoned hardrock mines in the West, partly supported by a fee based on the value of production.

The measure was heard by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month. A committee vote is expected this fall.

The abandoned mines were opened before 1977, when the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act required owners to put up financial assurance that an area would be reclaimed once mining ended.

New Mexico was a leading uranium producer from the 1950s to the 1980s. Until the 1970s, uranium went to defense.

That history obligates the federal government to help with reclamation, said Brancard and Democratic Rep. John Heaton of Carlsbad, vice chairman of the New Mexico Legislature's radioactive and hazardous materials committee.

"There's a national responsibility," Heaton said.

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