Uranium mining in New Mexico
Uranium mining in New Mexico was a significant industry from the early 1950s until the early 1980s. Although New Mexico has the second largest identified uranium ore reserves of any state in the United States (after Wyoming), no uranium ore has been mined in New Mexico since 1998.
White Signal district
The first uranium production in New Mexico was a minor amount of autunite and torbernite mined circa 1920 from former silver mines in the White Signal district, about 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Silver City in Grant County.
Grants mineral belt
New Mexico was a significant uranium producer since the discovery of uranium by Navajo sheepherder Paddy Martinez in 1950. Almost all uranium in New Mexico is found in the Grants mineral belt along the south margin of the San Juan Basin in McKinley and Cibola counties in the northwest part of the state. Stretching northwest to southeast, the mineral belt contains the Chuska, Gallup, Ambrosia Lake, and Laguna uranium mining districts. Most of the uranium ore is contained in the Jackpile, Poison Canyon, and Westwater Canyon sandstone members of the Morrison Formation, and in the Todilto limestone, all of Jurassic age.
|"I never knew where all the crooks from East Texas went until I got into the uranium business and they all turned up again" -- Dean McGee, of Kerr-McGee, quoted in Secret Riches by John Masters|
Several different companies moved into the region in the 1950s, particularly oil companies. They included Anaconda Company, Phillips Petroleum Company, Rio de Oro Uranium Mines, Inc, Kermac Nuclear Fuels Corporation (a cooperative of Kerr-McGee Oil Industries, Anderson Development Corporation, and Pacific Uranium Mines, Inc), Homestake Mining Company, Sabre-Pinion Corporation, United Western Minerals Company (of General Patrick Jay Hurley), J H Whitney and Company, White Weld & Co., San Jacinto Petroleum Corporation, Lisbon Uranium Corporation, and Superior Oil Company.
Active uranium mining stopped in New Mexico in 1998, although Rio Algom continued to recover uranium dissolved in water from its flooded underground mine workings at Ambrosia Lake until 2002. Currently (April 7, 2014), there are 12 uranium mines that are either in the process of licensing or actively developing in New Mexico. The state has the second-largest known uranium ore reserves in the US.
General Atomics' subsidiary Rio Grande Resources is currently evaluating its Mt. Taylor Mine for development by in-situ leaching. Uranium is present in coffinite in the Westwater Canyon member of the Morrison Formation at 3,000 feet (900 m) below ground surface. The mine, which operated as an underground uranium mine from 1986 to 1989, has a remaining resource estimated by its owner at more than 45 thousand tonnes of uranium oxide.
Strathmore Minerals Corp. is currently applying for permits to mine their Church Rock and Roca Honda properties in the Grants Mineral Belt. Neutron Energy and URI also reportedly plan to start uranium mining in the Grants belt.
Health and environmental issues
New Mexico uranium miners from the 1940s and 1950s have had abnormally high rates of lung cancer, from radon gas in poorly ventilated underground mines. The effect was particularly pronounced among Navajo miners, because the incidence of lung cancer is normally low among Navajos. The Navajo tribe, whose reservation contains much of the known ore deposits, declared a moratorium on uranium mining in 2005.
In May 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would join the Navajo Nation EPA in cleaning up radioactive contamination near the Church Rock mine. In 2017, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Navajo Nation, and two affiliated subsidiaries of Freeport-McMoRan, Inc., entered into a settlement agreement for the cleanup of 94 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. The settlement was valued at over $600 million, with the United States, on behalf of the Department of Interior and Department of Energy, contributing $335 million into a trust account for the cleanup. According to the EPA’s announcement of the agreement, “With this settlement, funds are now committed to begin the cleanup process at over 200 abandoned uranium mines (AUM) on the Navajo Nation.”
- Lovering, T. G. (1956) Radioactive Deposits of New Mexico, US Geological Survey, Bulletin 1009-L, p.329.
- Brookins, Douglas G. (1977) Uranium deposits of the Grants mineral belt: geochemical constraints on origin, in Exploration Frontiers of the Central and Southern Rockies, Denver: Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists, p.337-352.
- Granger, H.C. and others, "Sandstone-type uranium deposits at Ambrosia Lake, New Mexico-an interim report," Economic Geology, Nov. 1961, p.1179-1210.
- Masters, John (2004). Secret Riches: Adventures of an Unreformed Oilman. Gondolier Press. p. 69. ISBN 1-896209-97-1.
- "Atomic Energy: Uranium Jackpot". time. 1957-09-30. Retrieved 7 October 2009.(lists many companies)
- O'Dell, Larry. "Nuclear Power". Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society / Oklahoma State University. Retrieved 2009-10-02.(re: Kermac)
- "Shiprock Mill Site". Energy Information Administration. 2005-10-09. Archived from the original on 2009-10-16. Retrieved 2009-10-02.(re: Kermac)
- McLemore, = V. (February 2007). "Uranium Mining Resources in New Mexico" (PDF). SME Annual Meeting. Retrieved 3 October 2009.(re: Kermac)
- Kamat,S.A. Lucas. "New Mexico," Mining Engineering, May 2006, p.107.
- "Rio Grande Resources Corporation". General Atomics. 2012. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
- "Strathmore Minerals Corp. - Roca Honda". Strathmore Minerals Corp. 2012. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
- Kamat, p.103.
- "EPA to begin soil cleanup at five properties on Navajo Nation". United States Environmental Protection Agency. 1 May 2007. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
- "$600 Million Settlement to Clean Up 94 Abandoned Uranium Mines on the Navajo Nation". United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved November 4, 2018.