Radioactive Revival in New Mexico | The Nation


Radioactive Revival in New Mexico

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James Martinez of Albuquerque says state officials are placing Indian culture above all others. Martinez's great-great-grandfather was born in a cave at the base of Mount Taylor on land given to Spanish settlers 300 years ago by the king of Spain. Twenty thousand acres were granted to several families, including the Martinez clan. But over the years, three-quarters of the Juan Tafoya Land Grant, as it was called, was lost to back taxes and sloppy paperwork or unscrupulously taken by Anglo lawyers and ranchers.

About the Author

Shelley Smithson
Shelley Smithson, a freelance writer in Urbana, Illionis, teaches journalism at the University of Illinois.

"Thirty-five years ago, my father made [the land grant] into a corporation," Martinez explains. "He brought a lot of people back who lost their rights there."

The land grant now totals 4,500 acres, including the village of Marquez--population zero. The Martinez family lived in Marquez until after World War II, when they moved to Albuquerque. Now all that remains of the village are a few empty houses, a vacant church, a closed post office and an abandoned school. Just beyond the village, beneath the icy mountain streams and ponderosa pines, is a uranium ore body estimated at 15 million pounds.

When Martinez was a teenager, a uranium company sank a shaft and built a mill near Marquez, but before any ore was pulled out of the ground the price of uranium collapsed. So too did the family's dream of becoming wealthy. Then, four years ago, after two decades of uranium prices that averaged around $10 a pound, the price of uranium started to climb, reaching an all-time high in 2007 of $138 a pound. (It has since fallen with the price of other energy commodities to $49 a pound.) The 500 shareholders of the Juan Tafoya Land Grant voted to lease the land to Neutron Energy, a private uranium company based in Phoenix. The company, which plans to operate a shaft mine and a mill in the area, promises that technology and safer operating procedures will make mining and milling environmentally benign.

Martinez's son Amadeo is already benefiting. Neutron gave him a scholarship to attend the University of New Mexico, where he is studying geology in hopes of working for the mine company. He plans to move back to the village of his ancestors someday. "I know the Natives. We've been accused [by them] up front of only looking for the fast dollar," says James Martinez's wife, Patricia. "We see it as a way to help the economy, to help our future, the next generation."

From Linda Evers's front yard she can see the snow-covered cap of Mount Taylor to the east. To the north her view is blocked by a ten-foot red fence that separates her property from the boundaries of the Homestake Mill Superfund site. Today all that remains of the closed uranium mill eight miles northwest of Grants are a few metal buildings and two earthen impoundments. Covering 240 acres, the Homestake impoundments, holding piles of tailings, are filled with 20 million tons of radioactive sludge generated by thirty years of milling uranium.

Evers, a former miner, miller and ore hauler, says she became a member of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment because she wanted the community to remember that uranium has sickened Anglos, Hispanics and Indians. Evers, who is Anglo, believes her degenerative bone disease and persistent skin rashes are linked to uranium exposure. "My daughter was born with no hips at all," says Evers, whose son was also born with birth defects.

The multicultural alliance is composed of Indian, Anglo and Hispanic members of five grassroots organizations opposed to new mining. The group has given tours of contaminated areas to state officials, worked with lawmakers to craft legislation and testified before the state legislature about widespread groundwater pollution at Homestake Mill. Despite a three-decade remediation effort that has been overseen by the NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency, contamination from Homestake's tailings has migrated to five regional aquifers. A 2008 report by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry declares the site a public health hazard and states, "even upon completion of the remediation, the levels of uranium and selenium will be above drinking water standards."

This year, state environmental officials ordered people in Evers's neighborhood to stop drinking well water. In addition to contamination from mill tailings, state officials are investigating whether radioactive pollution from abandoned uranium mines north of Homestake might be contributing to toxic underground plumes.

Fifty miles west of Grants, in the Navajo community of Church Rock, soil testing in 2007 revealed radiation levels so high that EPA crews wearing hazardous materials suits brought in backhoes to remove dirt from the yards of five families. The homes are located between two abandoned mines and a former mill that was the site of the largest radioactive spill in US history.

The residential dirt removal cost the government $1 million and was part of an EPA plan to clean up one of the two mines. Despite opposition from the community and the Navajo Nation, the NRC issued a permit allowing HRI of Dallas to begin new mining at the other abandoned mine.

Larry King, who lives nearby, testified in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is pressing the EPA to clean up more than 500 abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation. King said, "The NRC ruled that the radiation from the [old mine] site doesn't have to be included in [the permit's] public dose calculations, that the wastes there are now part of 'background,' as if the Great Spirits had placed them there from the beginning of time.... I guess [NRC's] mandate to protect the public health and safety just doesn't apply to we Navajos."

King's neighbor Edith Hood, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006, also implored Congress to halt the NRC's approval of new mines in Navajo communities. "My father has pulmonary fibrosis. My mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. My grandmother and grandfather died of lung cancer. Many of my family members and neighbors are sick, but we don't know what from," Hood said. "How can they open new mines when we haven't even addressed the health impacts and environmental damage of the old ones?"

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