High Levels of Radiation From Uranium Affects Residents From The Southwest

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For years, residents of the Southwest, including many Indigenous people, have been exposed to high levels of radiation from uranium extraction and refining, a toxic legacy from the Cold War’s weapons program and nuclear power generation.

Mark Olalde and a team at ProPublica have been investigating around 50 former uranium mills with more than 250 million tons of toxic radioactive waste around the country for the last several months. About half of the mills have yet to be cleaned up and sealed, including one owned by the Homestake Mining Company, now a subsidiary of Barrick Gold. While operations ended in 1990, the cleanup continues.

‘What we’ve found there is although we knew about pollution decades and decades ago, and although this mill stopped operating in 1990, it still is not fully capped, it still is unlined, and so it’s leaking radon into the air. It’s leaking uranium and selenium into the water, and we’re trying to figure out who’s responsible for cleaning that up,” Olalde said.

Olalde said that cancer among residents in the area near the mill is incredibly high. One family lives under half a mile from 22 million tons of uranium waste, creating a very dangerous situation that could have awful side effects surrounding their air, water and cancer susceptibility.

“We really only had 30 years of massive uranium mining, largely in the four corners, in New Mexico and other states, but now for the past 40 years, we’re still figuring out ‘what are we going to do with that legacy?” Olalde said.

A lot of the waste is leaking from the sites and more than half of them do not have a liner underneath, which provides a barrier from the toxic chemicals touching the ground.

“We’ve found a handful of mills that were directly on the Navajo nation and other tribal land around the west, and then you’ve got a lot of these mills and mines that are within several miles,” Olalde said. Some of the spills can leak and hit land, or the emissions can ruin air quality.

Mark Olalde, Reporter for ProPublica

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