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Report Documents Lax Standards, Safety Violations, Inadequate Cleanup

WASHINGTON, June 23 — The past and future of uranium mining threaten communities across America, which an antiquated federal law fails to protect from the hazards of abandoned mines, toxic waste dumps and contaminated water, according to a new report from Earthworks.

The recent decision by the Obama administration to advocate for the withdrawal from mining of one million acres around the Grand Canyon demonstrates the serious threat that uranium mining poses to water resources.

“The 1872 Mining Law does not even require uranium miners — unlike all other extractive industries such as coal, oil and natural gas — to pay royalties to taxpayers that could be used to clean up radioactive contaminated sites, says the report, Nuclear Power's Other Tragedy: Communities Living with Uranium Mining.

“It is long past time that regulation of uranium mining is brought into the 21st Century,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director of Earthworks, an international mining reform organization. “This outdated federal statute allows uranium mining companies, who are often foreign multinationals, to take minerals from public lands for free while polluting our country's irreplaceable natural resources.”

The report pulls together alarming data on the lax standards and high number of safety violations at all active uranium mines and cleanup sites in the United States. Some of the more startling examples:

  • At the Willow Creek mine and mill sites in central Wyoming, there were 260 reported spills of radioactive water from 1987 to 2004.
  • Groundwater near the shuttered Schwartzwalder Mine near Denver is contaminated with uranium at levels 1,000 times higher than human health standards.
  • In Texas, where the state rather than the federal government regulates uranium mining, mine operators are routinely allowed to to promise to clean up groundwater to a certain level when applying for mining permits, but then lower the level of required cleanup after mining ends.

But the report also tells the stories behind the numbers, with case studies of Native and Anglo-American communities that are struggling with uranium mining's legacy and concerned for the future. The report spotlights people working to help those affected by uranium mining's legacy, and to prevent future tragedies. They include:

  • Nadine Padilla, a Navajo-Pueblo activist who is fighting to keep Mount Taylor, N.M., a sacred site, safe from uranium mining while helping the victims of earlier mining. “It is our duty,” Padilla says, “to protect Mt. Taylor and other sacred places to maintain our balance in the world.”
  • Deb Abrahamson of the Spokane tribe in Washington state, who is working to secure federal compensation for former workers at the Midnite Mine. “We no longer gather roots and berries from the area around the mine because of concerns about poisons,” she says. “People are afraid to eat, afraid to harvest.”
  • Wilma Tope of Converse County, Wyo., who organized her neighbors to protect drinking and agricultural water around the nation's largest active uranium mine. Says Tope: “If you don't have good water, you have nothing.”

The report calls for removing uranium from the jurisdiction of the antiquated 1872 Mining Law which allows mining companies to extract uranium from public lands without paying royalties. The Uranium Resources Stewardship Act, introduced by Reps. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, would institute royalties, a competitive leasing program, and give federal land managers more say over whether mining should be allowed in sensitive areas.

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