Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — U.S. nuclear regulators are considering a licensing change proposed by a uranium company that would clear the way for 1 million cubic yards of waste to be transferred from a mining area in western New Mexico to a mill site a short distance away as part of a cleanup effort.

But Indigenous activists and nuclear watchdogs say the proposal doesn’t go far enough in protecting the area and surrounding Navajo communities from more contamination.

The deadline to comment on a draft environmental review of the proposal was Thursday.

Federal environmental regulators have been working with the Navajo Nation for several years to address contaminated sites near the community of Church Rock. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it also has coordinated with the tribe as it reviewed the potential environmental effects that would result from amending United Nuclear Corp.’s license for the mill site.

The mine waste that would be moved to the mill site is made up of soil, vegetation, rock and other debris of varying levels of radioactivity. Officials say the higher-level waste would be disposed of elsewhere.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review found that there would be only small environmental effects to surface and groundwater supplies, soil and air quality. However, the commission noted high impacts when it comes to environmental justice given that residents in the surrounding area and the Navajo Nation more broadly have been grappling with the legacy of uranium mining and contamination for decades.

Federal officials during previous public meetings and in documents have highlighted that past, namely what was the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history.

United Nuclear Corp. operated the Church Rock uranium milling facility from 1977 to 1982. In 1979, the tailings disposal pond breached its dam, sending more than 93 million gallons of radioactive and acidic slurry into an arroyo and other drainages.

Three times the radiation released at the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, the contamination from the breach in New Mexico affected water supplies, livestock and downstream communities.

Activists have voiced concerns about the plan to consolidate the waste, saying the cheaper option wouldn’t address the ongoing problems. They also are worried about the federal government removing a “potential threat waste” designation from the environmental impact statement.

The Red Water Pond Road Community Association, which is made up of residents who live near the site, has been pushing for the waste to be removed from the area altogether. Top Navajo government officials have made the same request, saying the waste remains a threat to human health and the environment.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez (Bryan Pietsch/Cronkite News, File)

In a recent letter to federal officials, Navajo President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer reiterated that those who are most affected by the waste are minority and low-income residents, and they are owed “the best solution possible.” The Navajo leaders said that would be moving the waste to an appropriate repository away from the Navajo Nation.

“Simply transporting it to a facility less than one mile away from the reservation boundary, while it technically is removing it from the Navajo Nation, in reality is just taking it from one side of the road to the other,” they wrote.

They went on to say that about 30 million tons of uranium were extracted from Navajo lands over decades to support the U.S. government’s security mission.

“It would seem appropriate for the United States to support the complete removal of the uranium waste that was improperly left behind from that effort,” they wrote. “If additional funding is needed to achieve that goal, such appropriations should be considered as well.”

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