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Radioactive Revival in New Mexico | The Nation

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Radioactive Revival in New Mexico

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According to the EPA, long-term exposure to uranium and its radioactive byproducts has been linked to chronic lung and renal diseases and cancers. Uranium exposure may also cause tumors in the tissues where new blood cells are formed and in the lymphatic system. Long-term exposure to high levels of radium--a byproduct of uranium mining--may cause anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, head and nasal passage tumors and bone cancer.

About the Author

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

A 2000 study reported that two Navajo children exposed to uranium while in the womb suffered deadly central nervous system disorders. Their mother had unknowingly led the family's sheep to water at uranium-contaminated springs and had drunk the water herself. Hood said she fears that traditional Navajo families, who raise and butcher sheep, may be eating meat that is poisoned with uranium and other heavy metals.

A federally funded project at the University of New Mexico is trying to determine if there is a connection between drinking uranium-tainted water and kidney disease. Many Navajos in northwestern New Mexico do not have running water, so they haul water in fifty-gallon barrels from public wells. Nearly one-quarter of these unregulated water sources likely contains unsafe levels of uranium, according to the US Indian Health Service.

It's 10:02 on a crisp fall morning in Grants. Radio KMIN is on the air, playing "goo-ooo-ood country music."

"Thanks for tuning in to KMIN," says the effervescent announcer and station president, Derek Underhill. "It's time for our public-service program on energy. Our experts are brought to you by CARE." The mining-industry-backed CARE, the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy, is sponsoring an eight-week "educational series" on the community's AM radio station, featuring one-hour interviews with uranium executives and mining-friendly lawyers, economists, academics and scientists.

The guest this morning is Steven Brown, a health physicist who has worked in the uranium industry for forty years. Brown is discussing a 1999 report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "[The report] states, and I quote, 'No human cancer of any type has ever been seen as a result of exposure to natural or depleted uranium.'" Brown does not provide the next sentence in the report, which states, "Uranium can decay into other radionuclides, which can cause cancer if you are exposed to enough of them for a long enough period."

Downplaying uranium-related illnesses and environmental pollution on the radio is only one move in the industry's public-relations playbook. In public hearings and industry-sponsored "educational meetings," the executive director of CARE, Marita Noon, claims environmentalists are using Indians as pawns to block mining and to keep the state's residents poor. Noon, who was a Christian motivational speaker before becoming a self-proclaimed "advocate for energy," says God put uranium in New Mexico so that Americans can wean themselves from Middle Eastern oil and Russian uranium.

Industry lobbyists also make their case to regulators and legislators. In March a New Mexico House committee tabled a bill that would have empowered state regulators to force companies to clean up their messes from decades ago. "The industry came out hard against it," says Nadine Padilla, a lobbyist for several grassroots groups, including the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment. Another failed bill would have created a permanent fund to clean up abandoned mines that are contributing to groundwater pollution.

At an NRC hearing in Albuquerque last fall, uranium lobbyist Adella Duran demonstrated the cozy relationship between the industry and some lawmakers. Duran stood at the podium and told an NRC panel that she had been asked by representative to the New Mexico Legislature John Heaton to speak on his behalf.

"He wasn't able to be here tonight," she explained. "He knew that I was going to be here in a different capacity, and so he has asked me on his behalf, for the record, to read a letter that he has written to [NRC] Chairman Klein."

After reading the statement by Heaton, who is chair of the State House Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, she moved to the other side of the podium and spoke on behalf of her clients, the uranium industry, urging the NRC to expedite its permit process for new mines.

The industry is peddling influence at the local level, too. Both Homestake and HRI have hired the Albuquerque public relations firm D.W. Turner to bolster their images as good corporate citizens. Homestake established a "Little Miners" program to fund classroom projects at the Grants elementary school; both firms support numerous nonprofit organizations, from literacy programs to domestic violence shelters to crisis pregnancy centers.

"They're going around handing out checks to people, to businesses, nongovernmental organizations, a lot of social programs that have been starved," says Chris Shuey, a community organizer with the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based advocacy group. Shuey, who is often referred to by CARE's executive director as an "environmental zealot," says he has watched the debate devolve into an atmosphere of racial divisiveness and hate. "There's been demonizing and just meanness and ruthlessness against people who have been upstanding citizens," he says. "They say there are rabid environmentalists. There is nobody as rabid as these pro-uranium people."

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