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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.