McDonald: Contamination deserves discussion

A couple of reports related to Superfund sites in northwestern New Mexico caught my attention last week, in part because of a trip I took to the Navajo Nation and its governmental center, Window Rock, Ariz., where the Navajo Times is headquartered.

The Times had a front-page story on contaminated groundwater as a result of uranium ore milling spill that occurred 35 years ago a few miles northeast of Gallup.

The Times article, written by Alastar Lee Bitsoi, reported on the EPA’s finding that efforts to clean the area of several contaminants have essentially failed. Metals such as aluminum, chloride, manganese and sulfate are still in the Pipeline Canyon Arroyo, and they’re seeping into the groundwater below.

Of the 23 monitoring wells in the area, 18 have turned up radioactive radium, among other contaminants.

Meanwhile, at Grants, the Cibola Beacon ran its final installment in a four-part series about a two-day permit hearing related to the Homestake Mining Co. site. Again, uranium ore milling resulted in contamination of the water supply, while the cleanup effort there is now entering its fourth decade.

These are two of five Superfund sites in this mineral-rich area of the state. There are more than a dozen Superfund sites scattered around the state.

And with just about all of them, it’s the groundwater that’s being contaminated.

Superfund sites are areas that have been contaminated with hazardous substances, usually because of a spill or the illegal dumping of toxic waste.

There are more than 1,300 Superfund sites on the “National Priorities” list in the U.S., and while most of them are back east, the West has its share as well.

According to a list I found at a pollution information site called Scorecard, New Mexico is tied with Kansas and Tennessee for 23rd — with 13 Superfund sites.

Of course, the industries that created these sites didn’t just harm the environment. People have often fallen victim as well.

In western New Mexico, uranium miners were exposed to high levels of radon, and a lot of them got sick from it. At least one study found lung cancer to be abnormally high among the Navajo miners of the 1940s and 1950s, before any reasonable safety and ventilation standards were in place.

Travel the Navajo Nation and talk with its people and it’s easy to find anecdotal evidence of higher-than-normal cancer rates among people who worked in or lived near the uranium ore mines.

The Church Rock uranium mining spill, the one just north of Gallup, occurred in 1979, when United Nuclear Corporation’s disposal pond breached its dam, spilling millions of gallons of radioactive waste into the Puerco River. Some say the spill released more radiation than the Three Mile Island disaster, though it certainly didn’t get as much media attention. The river carried the radiation into the Navajo Nation, where people used the water for irrigation and livestock, unaware for a time that the river had been made toxic.
The fact is, we’ve got contamination all over the place, and the lack of truth-telling is a big problem in dealing with it.

That’s not to say the federal EPA and the state Environment Department, at those recent public hearings in western New Mexico, weren’t telling it like it is, but where were they years ago when the mining operations did their damage?

In bed, I suspect, with the extractors themselves.

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at: