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Abandoned uranium mines threaten Navajo people

Oct 19, 2021, 7:05 AM | Updated: 7:57 am
Navajo uranium...
Image of the interior of a uranium mine Photo: Canva

PINEDALE, New Mexico — Navajo residents have been dealing with radiation exposure from over 500 uranium mines for decades.

Uranium mines were built and worked between the years of 1944 and 1986. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, over 30 million tons of uranium were extracted from the mining sites on Navajo lands during that time.

Today, there are 524 known abandoned uranium mine sites on the land that constitutes the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there could be far more.

The largest release of radioactive material in US history

The presence of the mines on Navajo land has had catastrophic effects. In July of 1979, the Church Rock mines released the most significant amount of radioactive material in U.S. history.

The event known as the Church Rock Uranium Mill Trailing Spill released radioactive material in bulk. The presence of the over 500 abandoned uranium mines has and continues to contaminate groundwater and threaten public, occupational, and environmental health.

According to a press release from the Navajo Nation, there is currently funding for clean-up efforts at only 219 of the known mines. This will leave 305 known sites on Navajo land to harm the surrounding areas, resources, and people.

Navajo residents meet with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez to discuss uranium mine waste transfer. Photo: Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President

On Saturday, October 17th, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency Executive Director Valinda Shirley met with concerned Navajo Nation residents and members of the Red Water Pond Road Community Association.

Red Water Pond Road Community members live near the Tronox Quivira Mines, and the United Nuclear Corporation Mill Site, and the Northeast Church Rock Mines, the site of the catastrophic release of radioactive material in 1979.

“Our small Navajo communities have suffered long enough.”

The Community Association spoke to President Nez about their opposition to the transfer of uranium mine waste from the Northeast Church Rock abandoned uranium mines to the Mill Site, a disposal location that is close to the Association members’ residences.

According to the press release, President Nez and the Red Water Pond Road Community Association requested a second extension for the comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The Impact Statement is a document prepared by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that describes the would-be impacts of the proposed amendment that would allow for the transfer of hazardous waste to the Mill Site.

The extension will allow more time for Navajo people to comment on the hazards of the abandoned mines and the harm they have caused.

“Our small Navajo communities have suffered long enough,” said President Nez, “and the federal government needs to be held liable for all clean-up efforts.”

A follow-up meeting with the Navajo Nation EPA and Red Water Pond Road Community Association is scheduled this week to continue to support the extension.

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Abandoned uranium mines threaten Navajo people