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Dahr Jamail | Toxic Legacy: Uranium Mining in New Mexico

Thursday, 20 February 2014 09:08 By Dahr Jamail, Truthout | Report
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2014 0220dahrjr1(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout
Most people are unaware that the third-largest nuclear disaster in world history occurred in New Mexico.

Less than four months after the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown in 1979, three times as much radiation was released when a spill at a uranium mill at Church Rock, New Mexico, dumped 94 million gallons of mill effluent and more than 1,000 tons of acidic, radioactive sludge into an arroyo that emptied into the Puerco River.

The only two nuclear disasters that have released more radiation were those at Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Like other indigenous peoples whose reservations happened to have uranium deposits the federal government, and later private companies, desired, the Navajo were not warned of the dangers of radiation.

The Navajo Nation, where the spill occurred, is riddled with 521 abandoned uranium mines across the three states included within the reservation, according to the EPA; 450 of those mines and eight former uranium mill sites are in New Mexico, and three of these are designated superfund sites. These sites are the source of contamination for tens of millions of gallons of groundwater and countless acres, the brunt of which is on Navajo land.

Like other indigenous peoples whose reservations happened to have uranium deposits the federal government, and later private companies, desired, the Navajo were not warned of the dangers of radiation.

Unexplained Respiratory Problems

Larry King is one of them.

"I just got through two months of battling respiratory problems that had me in the hospital," King told Truthout. "There was an unofficial survey done by an organization working to log former miners, and they found a lot of us were complaining of unexplained respiratory problems. That's what I have, unexplained respiratory problems, but I know where they came from."

King attributes his sickness to his former job working in a uranium mine as a surveyor for United Nuclear Corporation (UNC), the company responsible for the 1979 Church Rock spill.

"I strongly believe I'm sick because of the years I worked underground," King continued. "My job was to be behind miners, and I had to make trips into tunnels not ventilated, which had high readings of radon gas, and being exposed daily to contaminated water, Radon, diesel fumes and dust."

For months after his job ended, King said he was "coughing up black stuff in my phlegm, or it was coming out of my nose."

Now on to his second doctor trying to find proper treatment, his efforts continue to be unsuccessful, and his health continues to decline.

"I can't work for a long time or I get fatigued and short on breath," King said. "I was breathing contamination for seven hours a day for years, and I explained this, but my doctor just keeps giving me antibiotics and inhalers."

And King is far from alone. Thousands of former uranium mine and mill workers remain sick with symptoms that have now been attributed to their work, as well as countless other people, mostly indigenous, who live in close proximity to these contaminated sites.

Navajo families have bathed, showered, washed clothes in, played in, and drank radioactive water. Their men worked in the mines while breathing carcinogenic gasses, then spread radionuclides throughout their families simply by returning home from work.

In New Mexico, a disproportionate number of unremediated uranium mine and mill sites are on lands traditionally used and occupied by the Navajo. Thus, a disproportionate amount of pollution from uranium sites occurs in Navajo communities, so the Navajo continue to bear the brunt of the health problems associated with these toxic sites.

Navajo families have bathed in, showered in, washed clothes in, played in and drunk radioactive water. Their men worked in the mines while breathing carcinogenic gases then spread radionuclides throughout their families simply by returning home from work. But it wasn't until the spill was designated as a superfund site in 1983 that the Navajo who were being irradiated and sickened for more than 30 years learned the truth.

Chris Shuey, an environmental health specialist with the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) in Albuquerque, has been working with Navajo communities affected by uranium mining and milling for more than 30 years. "The health of people living near the uranium mines and mills, and the communities impacted by uranium mining and processing have not been well-studied," Shuey told Truthout.

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Many Navajo families live within 50 feet of old uranium mine and mill sites. (Photo: New Mexico Environmental Law Center)

But he and SRIC have been studying the impacts since the uranium-mining era ended by the mid-1960s.

"What has been known for decades is the men working in the early mines were suffering from excess risk and incidence of respiratory disease, malignant and nonmalignant lung cancer and disease at rates far beyond rates in the rest of the US," Shuey said.

But that is only the beginning of the problems.

A History of Radiation

Uranium mining in New Mexico kicked off near the beginning of the atomic age when, in the 1950s, a Navajo man discovered uranium while herding his sheep. This was what essentially launched the uranium-mining boom in the West. At first, the federal government was the sole purchaser of uranium for atomic weapons and experimental nuclear power.

"During that time, there were a tremendous number of uranium mines in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest," Eric Jantz, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) in Santa Fe told Truthout.

It was the heyday of uranium mining in New Mexico, and everybody thought they were going to get rich from what quickly evolved into a typical rush, not unlike the gold rush in California. By the 1960s, the private sector became involved, along with federal government subsidies and support.

King described his former company as one being so caught up in the profit making they chose to neglect taking proper safety measures for the workers.

"Proper OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] safety practices were not used on a daily basis," he said. "We were not given respirators to use underground. I know co-workers who drank the water dripping in the tunnels. You're walking down the tunnels and heavy equipment is rolling by and all that dust. There was no safety for us."

"We knew when a safety inspection was coming because all the tunnels not being used were barricaded, workers were told to use respirators and other safety gear and do things that weren't done on a daily basis," he said. "Then after the inspection, a couple of days later it was as back to normal, no safety and no respirators."

According to King, the only time UNC took safety measures was when OSHA announced an upcoming visit to the mine.

"We knew when a safety inspection was coming because all the tunnels not being used were barricaded, workers were told to use respirators and other safety gear and do things that weren't done on a daily basis," he said. "Then after the inspection, a couple of days later it was as back to normal, no safety and no respirators."

In the mid-1980s the uranium market crashed, and most of the mines and mills in New Mexico were shuttered.

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The EPA logs 10,400 uranium mine features across the West. This is the Homestake mill site, and the hill in the background is a tailings pile. (Photo: NMELC)

"But even before then, folks suspected there were problems with uranium mining and milling, things like environmental contamination and public health issues, lung cancer and lung disease for the miners," Jantz, whose firm works for clients hoping to have someone address the environmental contamination and human health legacy issues, explained. "So the uranium mining industry started to become suspect from a health perspective."

During the late 1990s, communities affected by the uranium mining and milling contaminants became more engaged.

"That's when folks started to realize that the legacy from uranium mining and milling was not one of promised riches," Jantz added. "But more one of environmental contamination, and they would be stuck with the bill."

Human Health Impact

Despite the obvious health risks associated with exposure to radiation that have been known for decades, very few studies exist that link Navajo illnesses to the uranium mines and mills.

Jantz sees this as neither coincidence nor happenstance.

"As with anything nuclear, good information is one of the first casualties," he explained. "So there's not a lot of information of environmental and public health impacts from uranium mining and milling. I think this is probably by design, because if those data were available nobody would tolerate any uranium mining anywhere. Once the full impacts of uranium mining and milling become clear, it's going to show there is tremendous devastation."

Despite the information blackout, it was clear from the beginning that uranium mining was causing health problems.

In a short time after beginning to work in the uranium mines, Navajo men began to be diagnosed with lung cancer.

By the 1960s, the US Public Health Service identified an association linking cumulative exposure to uranium and lung cancer, clarifying the cause as being exposure to radiation.

"Navajo miners, since they were nonsmoking, their lung effects had more pronounced importance from an epidemiological perspective," Shuey said. "Over the years, it's now very well-accepted worldwide in all scientific and medical groups that underground miners and uranium workers are disproportionately affected by the materials around them, like radon gases and radioactive decay products."

By the 1960s, the US Public Health Service linked cumulative exposure to uranium and lung cancer, clarifying the cause as being exposure to radiation.

Other studies have proven that even decades after they ceased being exposed to radiation, Navajo miners had mortality ratios and risks for lung cancer and other respiratory problems four times higher than nonminers.

Today, thanks in large part to the work of the SRIC, Shuey, Jantz, the NMELC and the DiNEH (Dine´ Network for Environmental Health) Project which works to address community concerns about high rates of kidney disease linked to the drinking of contaminated water within its population, the information base of the health impacts of uranium mining and milling is growing. (The indigenous people of the Navajo Nation refer to themselves as Dine´.)

Shuey explained that his organization, DiNEH, the University of New Mexico and other community groups have been involved in studies about uranium impacts on Navajo communities.

"We found that the closer you lived to mines and the more you came into contact with this waste, it significantly increased your risk to certain illnesses," Shuey said.

The illnesses he refers to are hypertension, auto-immune diseases, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease, all obtained simply by living close to mine waste.

Jantz pointed out other issues as well.

"What we're beginning to see in terms of public health impacts is lung cancer caused by radon gas, and they [former miners and current communities in proximity to mine and mill sites] are seeing breast and kidney cancers."

Studies of both animals and humans have found uranium to be primarily toxic to the kidneys. Arsenic, cadmium and other hazardous metals are commonly found in uranium tailings and generate metal damage to kidneys.

"It's becoming clear that living in proximity to a uranium mine results in a range of health issues from cancer to kidney disease to hypertension, heart disease, and auto-immune dysfunction.”

Uranium is also an estrogen mimicker, as well as an endocrine disruptor, according to Jantz.

"It's becoming clear that living in proximity to a uranium mine results in a range of health issues from cancer to kidney disease to hypertension, heart disease and auto-immune dysfunction," he said, while adding that many of the clients he works with live within just 50 feet of these areas.

While it is obvious that exposure to uranium would be likely to occur around the mines, mill sites can be equally contaminated.

At the mills, uranium ore was crushed then soaked in sulfuric acid to extract the uranium, before even more chemicals were added. What was left was a radioactive cocktail, which was usually stored in vast unprotected ponds that leached and continue to leach contaminants like radiation and heavy metals into the groundwater.

An article titled "Once Upon a Mine" by Carrie Arnold published in February in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (an arm of the National Institutes of Health), from which many of these citations were borrowed, added:

"A study of 266 cases and matched controls among Navajo births over 18 years suggested that children of women who lived near abandoned uranium sites were 1.83 times more likely to have one of 33 selected defects. Among these were defects thought to be connected to radiation exposure (e.g., chromosomal disorders, single gene mutations) as well as distinctly non related defects (e.g., deaths due to obstetrical complications)."

Other studies have shown how uranium's chemical and radioactive properties can damage DNA.

Meanwhile, radiation, heavy metals, and other contaminants from uranium mines and mills continue to leak, invisibly, into the air, water, and ground throughout the Southwest.

Shuey, Jantz, the NMELC and the DiNEH project continue to sift through reams of data generated by recent studies.

Meanwhile, radiation, heavy metals and other contaminants from uranium mines and mills continue to leak, invisibly, into the air, water and ground throughout the southwest.

A Local and Global Issue

There have been even fewer studies conducted for impacts on wildlife than there have been for humans.

"There is not a lot of information out there and nobody has much information on this," Jantz explained.  The closest we have are studies done after the Church Rock tailings spill, a study done on livestock that found significant deposition of radionuclides in organ meat of livestock that foraged around the site. The expectation would be similar for wildlife. These toxins bio-accumulate as they go up the food chain."

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Significant amounts of radionuclides have been found in livestock that forage near uranium mine and mill sites. (Photo: NMELC)

Additionally, there have been a few other studies on animals that suggest impacts on their reproductive systems from exposure to uranium.

A study in rats exposed to uranium found the offspring had a higher body burden of uranium than even the dams at the mill tailings areas. These offspring also had higher rates of physiological changes, including, disconcertingly, atypical sperm formation.  

Alarmingly, a mouse study produced evidence that uranium in drinking water caused estrogenic activity even at levels below the EPA's so-called safe drinking water level.

Jantz gives fair warning to those who believe that simply because they do not reside near an old uranium mine or mill they need not worry about these issues.

"The nuclear power chain is slung across the world, so folks who may not live near a mine or mill may not be getting those direct effects," he said. "But you may live near a fabrication plant or a nuclear power plant. And if you are one of those people, you are going to be dealing with the radiological effects on that end of the power chain. So the folks in New Mexico and the Southwest are the just first people exposed to the problem."

Shuey agreed.

"Our basic findings are that the closer you live to mines and exposure to the waste, you have almost double the chance of these illnesses," he said. "All the people living in these areas were at additional risk. So if they are at this additional risk, then you can extend that conclusion to other places throughout the West where you have the same geospatial relationships to people with mines."

Shuey said that the EPA logs 10,400 mine features across the West and stressed, "Uranium development has been widespread in the Western US since the 1940s, and it's not just an Indian community problem. It affects indigenous populations in Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and other states. But there are communities almost solely white that were effected by these mining operations in exactly the same way, in addition to the same lack of transparency from the government toward the workers."

According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), 37 states administer 18,900 licenses for entities working with nuclear materials, while the NRC itself administers another 2,900, and there are currently 99 operable nuclear power plants in the US.

A recent fire and radiation release at a New Mexico uranium repository that receives 17 to 19 shipments every week from sites around the country, including Los Alamos and installations in Idaho, Illinois and South Carolina, underscored his point.

According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), 37 states administer 18,900 licenses for entities working with nuclear materials, while the NRC itself administers an additional 2,900. There are currently 99 operable nuclear power plants in the United States.

Government, Company Response

The EPA remains involved in cleaning up several sites but at the time of publishing had yet to respond to Truthout's request for more detailed information about its ongoing cleanup operations.

Shuey explained that the federal government agencies involved "are very responsive to the results of our studies because there is now so much evidence that uranium is bad for you."

"I wish I could say I've observed heightened responsibility by the companies, but they are either trying to avoid responsibility or doing what they can to keep their costs for responsibility as low as possible."

However, the mining companies are a different story.

"They will always declaim responsibility or say the effects are not anywhere near what people say they are, or they say people drive cars and there's deaths in car accidents or you get as much radiation on a flight, and do all they can to minimize the consequences of what they are doing," he explained. "I wish I could say I've observed heightened responsibility by the companies, but they are either trying to avoid responsibility or doing what they can to keep their costs for responsibility as low as possible."

An example of this is General Electric, which owns the Chimney Rock uranium mine.

"GE sued the government in 2010 because they claimed the US government was to blame for giving them the permit in the first place," Shuey said. "So the feds agreed to pick up a third of the cost of the cleanup. That means taxpayers paid for it."

The Legacy Continues

The environmental costs of uranium mines and mills have never been calculated, but taxpayers have shelled out billions of dollars cleaning up mill tailings. And even this amount of money has barely put a dent in the problem.

Shuey stressed that "uranium mining waste was never regulated by the federal government," and it wasn't until 1978 that mill tailings finally began to be regulated.

"These are the sands and mill fluid, which has the pH of battery acid, in addition to being radioactive waste," Shuey said. "So these tailing piles were given money to be covered up or removed, and taxpayers covered this. But groundwater and surface water pollution, where radon gases are exhaled into the air by these piles, along with massive areas of contaminated ground and groundwater, have yet to be cleaned up."

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People living near a proposed uranium mining site that is marked by the white building in the background. (Photo: Osse Werner)

Nobody has estimated what it would cost to clean up these areas, but between $3 billion to $4 billion already has been spent. Shuey said much more needs to be done.

"The uranium legacy has left thousands of sites around the West that remain unreclaimed and uncontrolled, and the federal mechanisms to clean them up are entirely inadequate," he said. "The EPA is using the superfund law that was never even intended to be used for high-volume waste with a radioactive character."

Nevertheless, the threat of active uranium production remains in New Mexico.

Currently there are no active uranium mines or mills in New Mexico. And by the end of spring 2014, when the last active mill in Utah ceases operations, there will not be any more operating mills in the entire United States.

Nevertheless, the threat of active uranium production remains in New Mexico.

The Mount Taylor mine on the northwest flank of Mount Taylor, about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, operated by Rio Grand Resources, a subsidiary of General Atomics, is slated to go on active status by the end of 2014, according to Jantz.

The company web site says the Mount Taylor project, "a conventional underground mine that contains the largest uranium resource in the United States, is currently on standby." It adds that the mine contains "an in-place resource of over 100 million pounds" of ore and that "the deposit is being evaluated for development as an in situ leach operation."

Truthout asked Rio Grand Resources if the company has plans to restart the Mount Taylor mine but had not received a reply at the time this article was published.

However, thanks to a recent ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court, companies and permitting agencies will have to consult with tribes and pueblos there before any future mining is allowed, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Nevertheless, the toxic legacy from the mine and mill sites will continue for generations.

"All these uranium waste areas have to be removed or buried and encapsulated, but that just prolongs the longevity of the hazard for future generations to deal with," Shuey said.

He offered a stark warning: "Humans are very capable of getting these materials out of the ground, but we are very unskilled at figuring out what to do with the detritus of this. And we have thousands of waste sites dotting the western landscapes. And over time they become hard to tell where they are, but they are still contaminated. This is the burden we bear now, how to manage what to do with the waste materials and their effects on the environment and our health."

King remains sick, and frustrated.

"I'm definitely angry at UNC for not warning us about the health dangers," he said. "The majority of us were never told about the dangers of working in an underground uranium mine and how this would affect our health in the future."

He remains preoccupied with his health, both physical and psychological.

"I know that being exposed to all that I was exposed to has shortened my lifespan."

"Mentally I'm always thinking about what is wrong with me, and how this is going to affect me in the future," King said.

After a long pause, he added, "I know that being exposed to all that I was exposed to has shortened my lifespan."

Meanwhile, the legacy of the thousands of mines, mills, and other uranium contaminated areas spanning the Southwest remains, their cleaning left for a future fate. 

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last ten years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism, among other awards.

His fourth book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with William Rivers Pitt, is available now on Amazon. He lives and works in Washington state.


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