Toxic Legacy: Uranium Mining in New Mexico

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Read the entire story at Truthout