Uranium Monitoring Initiative Begins in Church Rock

* A radiological monitoring initiative recently began in the communities surrounding the abandoned uranium mines near Church Rock, New Mexico. Although the mines began operation in the early 1950s, this is the first time that such sampling of the air, water and soil around the mines has been done. Chris Shuey, of Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), said, "This is a preliminary survey to get the big picture, because this hasn't been done.... To begin to get to the issue of how mining may have affected health, you have to know what's in the environment first."

Members of the Navajo Nation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), State of New Mexico, SRIC and Diné College, among others, have scoured the area around Church Rock in search of abnormally high radioactivity. The findings of the sampling, which is partially funded by the Citizens' Monitoring and Technical Assessment Fund, will dictate the method and extent of cleanup in the area. Initial results of the sampling are expected to be available at the end of November.

EPA has already found what they are considering "anomalies," which are data points that may represent levels of uranium above background. Helly Diaz-Mercano, of EPA, said, "That's the word that we like to use because ... we don't know if there's any contamination. We don't want to use radioactivity, because we don't know if it's radioactive.... The word there is anomaly."

The monitoring results may also serve to aid future decisionmaking near Church Rock. Currently there are two in situ uranium mines proposed for the area. In situ uranium mining is a method by which alkaline solution is injected into the aquifer to dissolve surrounding uranium. The resulting solution is then pumped to the surface where the uranium and other heavy metals are removed. The water is then reinjected into the aquifer. This could compromise the quality of the only aquifer currently serving the residents of the Church Rock area.

In 1979, thousands of tons of radioactive waste were accidentally released into the Rio Puerco and Pipeline Arroyo. Mining operations are believed to have contributed dangerous levels of radioactive radon gas to the environment, which is known to cause lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.

Upwards of 1,000 people live within 5 miles of the proposed mines, with as many as 4,000 more expected due to the construction of a new housing development. Johnny Livingston, Church Rock Chapter President, said, "I want a safe place for new development. We don't want to put 900 [families] in there and find out 10 years down the road that it's not safe.... I want the assessment done before this project starts."

The community is concerned about how past uranium mining activities have affected the health of the miners and community-members. Ed Carlisle, Church Rock Community Services Coordinator, said, "[We want to know] what the extent of the contamination really is from a scientific viewpoint so we can see what we need to do, because right now we don't really know what the problem is."

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