Although the state legislature passed a uranium mine law signed by the governor, it will likely be years before the state actually begins rehabilitation. And while more money is needed for the effort because the early stages of work are slow, officials don’t expect to ask for additional funding in the next legislature.
Uranium mining boomed in New Mexico from the 1950s through the 1980s, before there were many state and federal environmental regulations. The United States government consumed most of the uranium to develop nuclear weapons. As demand fell, many companies abandoned their mines, despite numerous environmental and health risks the sites pose.
The mines that dot the landscape have been poisoning people and exposing them to radioactive radiation for decades. Many of the sites are concentrated in northwestern New Mexico and the Navajo Nation and expose people to radiation. Groundwater pollution means that people can absorb excessive amounts of salt, nitrate and uranium from their drinking water. Studies have shown that uranium can have serious health consequences, even for infants after maternal exposure.
So this year the legislature unanimously approved a purge bill in the Roundhouse and it went to the governor’s desk where it took place she signed it March. But not much has happened in the nine months since it became law.
State environment and resource officials presented Monday to the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee on work in progress to make the intent of House Bill 164 a reality.
Legislation requires the NM Department of the Environment to lead reclamation efforts and work with other government agencies to develop a plan and timeline. But that cannot even begin until an NMED coordinator is hired.
Jonas Armstrong is the director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives within NMED. He said the department held interviews with the coordinator in October.
Spokesman Matthew Maez said NMED is in the process of issuing an offer letter to a selected candidate. He said work will accelerate once the position is filled, which will hopefully happen in December.
Other government cleanup roles
The Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources filled its own position as Uranium Coordinator in October.
NMED is also looking for someone to fill another uranium remediation position. According to Maez, interviews will be held in the next few weeks for a water resources expert in the Mining Environmental Regulations Division of the Bureau of Groundwater Quality.
Armstrong said once the coordinator is hired, they will determine if there is sufficient funding, look at other programs to find good recovery plans, and determine how to get more resources they need, either through federal funding or lawsuits — although he does I don’t know if the mining company or the federal government would sue.
But that too will take time. The ministry is unlikely to seek additional government funding in the upcoming legislature as not enough information is being gathered about the plan yet. Armstrong said they expect to ask for more money in 2024.
“A lot of this is strategic planning work, as outlined in the bill, and will take time,” Armstrong said.
He mentioned those settlement that New Mexico came into contact with the US government after the Gold King mine was phased out, when state contractors released nearly 1 million pounds of heavy metals into a state watershed in 2015. He said the federal government needs to set up at least one contact point that can also be used for these uranium mine clean-up operations.
John Rhoderick, director of NMED’s Water Protection Division, said the mines are not just on state land, so many tribal, state and federal agencies are involved in these efforts, adding to the complexity.
“If it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago,” he said.
Who pays the bill?
Rhoderick said figuring out what kind of remediation strategies would work was a huge task. Though not much information has yet been gathered, he said the department knows the state needs money to get the cleanup going.
“A big part of what we’re doing in this first year is evaluating whether the tools that we have in the toolbox are sufficient or whether we need additional powers, whether we need additional tools,” Rhoderick said. “What we do know is that we need extra money.”
Clearing up the clutter becomes costly. Officials from NM’s Environment Department and Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources reiterated at the meeting that one of the big challenges is raising the money to cover expenses.
Rhoderick said it’s up to the mining companies and the federal government — the entity that needed the uranium — to pay for the messes they left behind. Jerry Schoeppner, director of the EMNRD’s Mining and Minerals Division, added that one of the first things to do with the cleaning coordinator is to make sure the responsible parties are paying.
“The responsibility of our state agencies — the New Mexico Environment Department and Mining and Minerals — is to hold these entities accountable and coordinate the work to protect not only our current population here in New Mexico, but future generations as well.” said Rhoderick.
New Mexicans shouldn’t be the ones paying for it, Rhoderick said. But Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon (D-Milan) questioned that since the state made money from uranium mining. Rhoderick said not all potentially responsible entities have been identified, so he cannot definitively address the issue just yet.
“The intent is to leave no stone unturned,” Rhoderick said.
Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) sponsored the Purge Act. He said the law doesn’t prevent New Mexico from helping to cover the costs.
“Should we find ourselves with an extra billion dollars and want to put it into the cleanup, that wouldn’t be the wrong answer,” Steinborn said. “It wouldn’t be wrong to do that.”
However, those responsible should pay if possible, he said.
Schoeppner pointed out that not everyone who left the trash will pay for it now.
A problem of “infinite scope and cost”
“We know that there are still a handful of usable people responsible, but very few,” said Schoeppner. “Most of them have since blown away, gone away.”
But the state government isn’t even sure where all the abandoned mines are or how many are left. So that has to be settled first, Rhoderick said.
“First is the scope. Then we look at cost estimates,” Rhoderick said. “Then we’ll find who will pay for it. Our goal is that they are not New Mexicans.”
Using a database that is over a decade old
What the state knows about where abandoned mines are based on information compiled by EMNRD in 2008.
The department identified approximately 260 historical sites that produced at least 5,000 pounds of uranium before being abandoned.
There are also about 450 other sites that didn’t produce quite as much uranium that didn’t make it into the database, Schoeppner said. He said more research needs to be done on the risks these mines still pose.
“There could be environmental problems. We have to deal with these,” he said. “Those are really the unknowns at this point.”
He said this database is really a starting point and the department plans to update it.
The federal government could also help find more locations. The US Department of Energy’s defense-related uranium mines program is reviewing locations of mines that have been used to create nuclear weapons. Clint Chisler of the EMNRD’s Mining and Minerals Division said federal work evaluating defensive mines in New Mexico is ongoing.
But when Steinborn asked if the FBI would go beyond the assessment and actually clean up the sites, Chisler said no reclamation work was planned.
Still, Steinborn said he’s glad that at least government agencies are finally working together to make cleanup of uranium mines a priority.
He encouraged state officials to contact the New Mexico federal delegation for funding for rehabilitation projects. He said he will soon have a conversation with Senator Martin Heinrich about where the dollars might come from.
“It’s going to be expensive work,” he said.
Cleaning up is one too priority for Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who oversees 500 million acres of public lands and spoke about her own experience of uranium causing health problems in Laguna Pueblo. She has said people who have suffered from contamination should be compensated, although many have not yet done so.
“This was an issue where we didn’t see enough movement,” Steinborn said.