Sen. Heinrich talks mining reform during visit
Lawmaker's remarks come during Friday visit to Navajo Nation
RED VALLEY, Ariz. – U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich is continuing to build the steps to push mining reform in wake of the Gold King Mine spill.
Heinrich and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, are working to introduce legislation to amend the General Mining Law of 1872.
Under the proposal, hard rock mining companies would pay royalties for the minerals, like uranium, they extract from public lands.
The royalties would be similar to that paid by oil, gas and coal companies, and would be used to pay for abandoned mine reclamation and cleanup.
As part of the senator's effort, he traveled to the Navajo Nation Friday to learn about the tribe’s efforts to monitor abandoned uranium mining sites.
Heinrich spent the afternoon visiting the uranium mill tailings disposal site in Shiprock and an abandoned uranium mine in the Red Valley Chapter. Both areas were impacted by uranium mining activity during the 1950s and 1960s.
After visiting the mine, the senator said it is time the United States fills its commitment to clean such areas on the Navajo Nation and the Southwest.
“Then change the law in terms of federal hard rock minerals, which right now we give away,” Heinrich said. “We should be taking a small percentage of that and putting it back into cleaning up all these abandoned mines that cause problems like what we saw in the Animas River in August.”
On Aug. 5, more than 3 million gallons of toxic waste water was released from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo., and flowed into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
The senator was accompanied by staff members from the Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation and Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action department in Shiprock.
Part of the department’s responsibility is to assist and participate in the remedial actions of sites located on the Navajo Nation, Department Manager Madeline Roanhorse said.
Melvin Yazzie, senior reclamation specialist with the department, said mapping the area's 175 mines is becoming easier because of technology advances and partnerships with entities such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“This whole top part, you don’t see anything visually, but you know there’s underground tunnels in that area,” Yazzie said.
During a stop at a residence in the Red Valley Chapter, Yazzie used a detector to measure gamma rays on the west side of an abandoned house.
The detector loudly buzzed as Yazzie moved along the sandstone wall.
A few yards from the contaminated house stood a new home, which was built by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a replacement.
“I didn’t have a good sense for how distributive these uranium mines are across the landscape and how close many are to places where people still make their living and survive,” Heinrich said.
The senator visited Navajo Agricultural Products Industry earlier in the day, where he toured the tribal enterprise’s control center, the fresh pack facilities and the Region II Scales.
“I wanted to see NAPI, and it was an opportunity to see that facility because I was going to be here,” he said.
Lionel Haskie, operation and maintenance manager at NAPI, explained to Heinrich about how the farming operation receives water diverted from the Navajo Reservoir by the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project.
The process is monitored and operated by NAPI’s control center, Haskie said.
NAPI CEO Tsosie Lewis provided the senator information about the farming operation’s future plans including increasing its organic crops.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.