Elizabeth Miller, NM In Depth - Sick Native people and toxic wastes left behind at a uranium mine

Elizabeth Miller, NM In Depth
Sick Native people and toxic wastes left behind at a uranium mine


By at least one estimate, about 70 percent of the world’s uranium resources have been found on “Native lands,” land traditionally settled by indigenous nations in the U.S., Australia, Canada and elsewhere. An estimated 25 percent of recoverable uranium in the U.S.  is on territory inhabited by the Navajo Nation, most of that in the State of New Mexico.

Some people have all the luck. NOT!

Uranium is a dangerous mineral, a documented cause of cancer, respiratory illnesses, and kidney diseases. Furthermore, other minerals frequently found in the ground near where uranium is deposited, chromium, cobalt, manganese, vanadium and zinc also bring with them hazards to human health.

But uranium mines aren’t the only dangerous hot spot on the nuclear energy supply chain.  There are the milling stations where uranium ore from the mine is crushed, ground and separated, solidified, dried and packaged. The wastes left behind are called tailings and are usually collected in piles of constantly emitting radiation.

According to the American Indian activist group The Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, “Over ninety percent of all [uranium] milling done in the U.S. occurred on or just outside the boundaries of American Indian reservations.” Which may actually be a lucky break for the Navajo people, because the federal government has an agency — the Office of Legacy Management — responsible for the long-term rehabilitation of toxic uranium milling sites.

But for old uranium mines, different rules apply because mines aren’t covered by the Atomic Energy act, a piece of especially bitterly bad luck for the members of the Laguna Pueblo, home of the now-closed Jackpile mine. For its 29 years of operation, which ended in 1982, the Jackpile mine was the largest open-pit uranium mine in the world.

It’s widely accepted, if poorly documented, that the legacy of the Jackpile mine, which made a jackpot-pile of money for its owners, Anaconda Copper Mining and Atlantic Richfield, better known as ARCO, includes contaminated land and water, and human beings.

When she was the local Congresswoman, Deb Haaland, herself a member of Laguna Pueblo, advocated for reparations. Now that she’s the Secretary of the Interior, she’s in charge of two Jackpile-related agencies, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (the BIA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but when our guest today, reporter Elizabeth Miller asked her office for comment for her Jackpile Mine story for The Guardian and New Mexico in Depth, Miller was advised …”talk to the EPA.”



Elizabeth Miller is an independent journalist based in Santa Fe, NM, who writes about energy and the environment, the outdoors and a range of public policies. He work has appeared at NM in Depth, High Country News and the Indian Country Network.







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