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Task force meets to address uranium contamination

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The McKinley Uranium Blue Ribbon Task Force, held a meeting to hear from community leaders in their continuing efforts to bring awareness on uranium and the health effects in people’s lives.

Organizers for the task force amassed proponents at the Gallup Community Center, who have fought for years against the uranium industry.

“We started having conversations about how this is going to impact our lands, water,” said Talia Boyd, organizer for the task force. “Our decision makers could formally recognize the need for these studies.”

At the center of the Thursday meeting was a proposed moratorium on uranium presented to the McKinley County Commission in January.  The measure was not passed as proposed.  Changes were made that the commission “supports any groups efforts … to hold public meetings.”

Historical proponents who attended Thursday’s meeting are organizers of Eastern Navajo Against Uranium Mining, known as ENDAUM.

Mitchell Capitan, who worked for Mobile in uranium mining industry, told the audience of the 11 years it took them to get the Navajo Nation Council to pass the 2005 Dine Natural Resources and Protection Act that bans all uranium mining and milling on Navajo lands.

“Just recently, in February 2012, there was another resolution passed by the Navajo Nation,” Capitan said, referring to the passage of a 2012 Navajo law that bans the transportation of “radioactive and related substances” on all roads traversing Navajo land.

“I want the commissioners to know that they need to protect all the people in McKinley county,” added Rita Capitan, Crownpoint Chapter president, who’s married to Mitchell.

In February 2014, the New Mexico Health Equity Partnership funded a Health Impact Assessment on the effects of the 1979 United Nuclear spill in Churchrock. It is regarded as the second largest accident of radioactive materials released containing 1,100 tons or uranium mining wastes-tailings and 100 million gallons of radioactive water.

The HIA report concludes that “McKinley County residents have higher rates of stomach, kidney, renal and pelvis cancer than the populations of both New Mexico and the U.S.”

Anna Rondon with the McKinley Community Collaborative for Health Equity was among invited guests.

“Two years ago I was a part of the health impact assessment,” Rondon said.  “The bottom line is number one recommendation is to have more health studies.

“As Ana says—McKinley has a debt to pay,” said Janene Yazzie, task force organizer.

The idea of a moratorium was first introduced on Nov. 1, at the McKinley County Board of Commissioners meeting.

“(Commissioner) Genevieve Jackson has been a strong supporter,” Yazzie said.  “She sponsored our original ordinance.”

At the following county commission meeting, there was reportedly no agenda posted, the task force states.

On Dec. 8, State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn sent a letter to the county commissioners that it has “No jurisdiction to regulate use of state trust lands.”

The letter was countered by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center that the commissioners “Are within their authority to enact and enforce the ordinance as written.”

A second reading before the commissioners took place on Dec. 13.

Attending the McKinley county commissioners’ meeting were visiting members of neighboring Cibola County, including the county manager and an economic development representative, while the state was represented by the minerals manager from the state land office.

Outgoing Commissioner Tony Tanner participated in the meeting during the December meeting, at which time a public hearing was proposed for January.

Incoming Commissioner Bill Lee’s first meeting was on Jan. 3. Commissioner Carol Bowman-Muskett introduced alternatives to the moratorium supported by new Commissioner Lee.

“We didn’t know what kind of politics that Commissioner Lee was going to bring in,” Yazzie said.

Commissioners Bowman-Muskett and Lee voted in support of the alternatives to the moratorium that asked for more public hearings and engaging state and federal agencies “to hear, collect, and analyze information on the impacts of uranium mining in McKinley County.”

“It wasn’t a public hearing,” Yazzie said.  “They also didn’t inform us.”

Commissioner Jackson voted in opposition of the alternative moratorium.

In February, a letter of intent to sue was received by the County Commission for allegedly violating the New Mexico Open Meetings Act.

On Feb. 21, commissioners convened a regular meeting with the letter of intent to sue on the agenda.  The commissioners opted for an executive session to discuss the pending litigation.

County Attorney Doug Decker said this week that there were three choices the county could take in response to the complaint.

They chose a peaceful route.

“Instead of fighting it, the remedy of having a second meeting was the easiest,” Decker said. On March 14, a special commission meeting was held, while Commissioners’ Bowman-Muskett and Lee supported the alternative moratorium, a final vote was given to support original language in the first draft of the moratorium.

The McKinley Uranium Blue Ribbon Task Force was formed.

“We’re going to get justice for our communities who have been exposed,” said Yazzie about radioactive materials, “for our future generations.”

A copy of the 73-page report can be found at: https://mckinleycommunityplacematters.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/looking-within_hia_final.pdf

By Deswood Tome

For the Sun

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