Much of the uranium for Cold War weapons and the nation’s once-burgeoning nuclear power industry was mined on or near Navajo land in Arizona and New Mexico, and it left behind contamination.
When California Democrat Henry A. Waxman became chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2007, he held a series of hearings on the toxic aftermath of the mining and was part of a group that persuaded the government to come up with a five-year plan to deal with it.
As Waxman nears retirement this year, he is trying again to draw the nation’s attention to the environmental and heath consequences of uranium operations in the Southwest.
“It is a modern American tragedy,” Waxman told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a hearing this month, repeating the same words he used seven years ago. “For decades, the Navajo nation has been dealing with the deadly consequences of radioactive pollution from uranium mining and milling.”
The commission is expected to hear a proposal to add more waste to the 3.5 million tons of mine tailings, capped to keep them from spreading, at a site 17 miles northeast of Gallup, N.M. The site is surrounded by Navajo land where farmers graze livestock on hillsides and live in homes near abandoned mines.
Without realizing the implications, and with no one to tell them, people in the area built houses with radioactive material, drank contaminated water and drove down dirt roads kicking up radioactive dust.
Waxman is intent on making sure the uranium waste issue does not fade into obscurity once he leaves his bully pulpit.
“The commission needs to make this project a priority,” he said.
Following decades of mining in the vicinity, the United Nuclear Corporation (now owned by General Electric) began milling operations along an intermittent streambed in 1977, crushing, grinding and acid-leaching uranium ore from the nearby Northeast Church Rock and Old Church Rock mines. The processed tailings were stored in impoundments and water was pumped from the drying cells — think of ponds or paddocks — treated and discharged into the arroyo, which flowed with effluent from water pumped out of mines.
In 1979, the mill was the site of what by some accounts was the nation’s worst nuclear accident when a breached dam released tons of acidic uranium slurry into the adjoining arroyo and down the Puerco River.
Due to its remoteness, the site has received less attention than Three Mile Island and other nuclear industry accidents. Cleanup from the spill was limited, and mill operations continued at the site until 1982.