Yesterday I attended a hearing of the Senate's Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Children's Health and Environmental Responsibility. The topic concerned the federal government's work cleaning up the contamination from legacy uranium mining and milling operations. The uranium legacy sites are a lasting reminder of our nation's Cold War efforts to build atomic weapons stockpiles in our arms race against the Soviet Union.
Chairman Tom Udall (D-NM) recalled during his opening statement the tragedy from the Church Rock uranium mill spill in 1979 when a tailings pond breached its dam spilling 1100 tons of radioactive mill waste and 93 million gallons of mine effluent in to the Puerco River. I had never heard of this event. I knew about Three Mile Island that happened the same year. I even remember Chernobyl. But Church Rock, second only to Chernobyl in terms of magnitude, occurred on Navajo lands and has never received the publicity of those other events.
The EPA is now in its fourth year of a five-year plan to clean up the Church Rock Superfund site. Both United States and Navajo governments agree that, despite substantial progress, they need at least another five years to clean up the mess.
A lot of un-mined uranium also remains in the Grants minerals belt where the Church Rock spill occurred more than 30 years ago. With high uranium prices making mining very profitable, there are dozens of mines in both the exploration and permitting phase in New Mexico, and most of those mines are located in Indian country. Many of these proposals plan to use in situ leach mining, or ISL. ISL mining is similar to fracking for natural gas wherein a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals is injected in to an aquifer. Mixtures of uranium-bearing fluids are then pumped to the surface for processing in to yellowcake.
Many of the proposed uranium mines in New Mexico are on federal lands, which continued to be governed by the 1872 Mining Law. Earthworks and our partners have been working to pass HR 1452, the Uranium Resources Stewardship Act, to move uranium out of the antiquated 1872 law in into the more modern Mineral Leasing Act. This change will end the presumed “right to mine” afforded by the 1872 Mining Law, by allowing public land managers more discretion to decide where uranium mining is and is not appropriate.