Poor oversight comes back to haunt us

Two investigations reveal federal agencies are too lax on bad actors.

 

Durango, Colorado, where I live, is a short jaunt from the Four Corners, where Colorado nestles against Utah, Arizona and New Mexico — the bull’s-eye of our country’s uranium industry. From 1944 to 1986, mining companies extracted nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore from lands belonging to the Navajo Nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Once Cold War hysteria waned, so too did uranium mining. But many of the industry’s leftovers — along with other bygone mining operations — still squat on the landscape, pernicious tenants with rent long overdue.

An old mine structure in Uravan, Colorado, where uranium mining has left a legacy of cancer and polluted lands.
Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

That is the finding of this issue’s cover story, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, produced in collaboration with High Country News and the Ohio Valley ReSource. For decades, some of the country’s biggest polluters have exploited loopholes in mining laws that allowed executives to sidestep legally mandated environmental remediation by idling their operations indefinitely.

The scope of this problem is staggering: Several dozen U.S. uranium mines and more than 150 coal mines, 120 quarries and five Western gold mines currently sit idle and have not produced for years, Mark Olalde, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, has found.

This issue reaches beyond the West, all the way to Kentucky, where out-of-work coal miners are protesting, and to mining-ravaged towns in Ohio and West Virginia. Though separated from their Western counterparts by most of a continent, these miners are similarly stuck in limbo, grappling with autoimmune disorders and high rates of cancer.

But even when cleanup begins, the path toward reclamation can be questionable, as illustrated in another story by journalist Susie Neilson. Neilson uncovers how the EPA awarded a contract to oversee uranium cleanup on the Navajo Nation to a company with a dubious track record. Tetra Tech EC, which oversaw cleanup of Hunters Point, a radioactive naval shipyard in San Francisco, falsified soil samples to make the site appear ready for development.

Meanwhile, the specter of uranium still haunts the Four Corners: Earlier this year, the Trump administration hinted at renewed mining on the Colorado Plateau, saying the mineral is critical for national security. Though the low price of uranium makes mining unlikely, a resurgence would be devastating to vulnerable communities.

Paige Blankenbuehler, associate editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News
Elsewhere in this issue, Assistant Editor Jessica Kutz examines why outdoor retailing giants like Patagonia and REI, which both fought for public lands at Bears Ears National Monument, have been conspicuously silent when it comes to similar battles in the Borderlands. Meanwhile, Assistant Editor Carl Segerstrom takes us to Newport, Oregon, where residents fight to ban the aerial pesticide spraying they blame for a spate of deadly illnesses.

Together, these stories remind us that politicians, regulators and even many activists have — at best — short memories.

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that 30 million tons of uranium ore were removed from the Navajo Nation, not pure uranium.

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