Navajos grapple with radioactivity

As a new boom in uranium mining continues to sweep the region, the last boom is continuing to haunt the nearby Navajo Nation. A former mine is currently being investigated for contamination, and Navajo miners who suffered from radiation exposure are struggling to receive compensation.

Extensive mining occurred on the Navajo Nation to feed Cold War demands for uranium, and much of that mining took place at the Northeast Church Rock Mine, located between Gallup and Farmington, N.M., from 1967 - 1982.

In January, the Environmental Protection Agency detected elevated levels of radiation at the site and radium in the surface soils. Radium is a known human carcinogen, and residences to the northeast of the mine may have been contaminated. Last week, the EPA announced that the United Nuclear Corp. will be required to further investigate contamination related to its mining and processing operations at the site and take radiation and soil samples. In addition, United Nuclear must replace an inadequate fence that currently allows individuals and livestock to enter areas of potential contamination.  

“The conditions at this site present a risk of potential releases of hazardous substances to the air, surrounding soils and sediments,” said Keith Takata, director of the EPA Superfund Division. “United Nuclear Corporation needs to determine how much contamination exists at the site and then take steps to clean it up.”  

The EPA will evaluate the results of the investigation and consult with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency on any cleanup plans. The agency will then attempt to reach a separate settlement with United Nuclear Corp. in which the company would clean up the area and pay for past costs related to the site.

Meanwhile, Navajo miners affected by radiation poisoning are attempting to get proper compensation from the federal government. Addressing 75 former miners recently, Navajo President Joe Shirley argued that a greater percentage of federal compensation was disproportionately awarded to non-native miners. As a result, the Navajo Nation is redoubling its efforts to see its uranium miners adequately compensated. According to Shirley, non-Navajo miners received 80 percent of the funding, approximately $300 million. Navajo miners received only 12 percent of the funds, largely because of difficulty meeting eligibility requirements which did not consider the Navajo way of life.

“Navajo people did work with uranium and breathed it in and health problems happened, yet Congress has not really listened or supported us,” Shirley said. “This current Congress is like that. They are sitting on the funding right now. This is why we keep submitting information and we continue to wait.”

In April of 2005, the Navajo Nation passed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act, banning any uranium mining or processing on Navajoland. With the rising price of uranium, now at $52 per pound, Shirley said the Navajo Nation is under intense pressure from companies wanting to override the act.

“Navajos said ‘No more mining,’ so (the companies) turned around and are lobbying the states and the U.S. government, saying, ‘Even though Navajos say no, allow us to mine,’” Shirley said.


Renewable energy fires up Silverton

A new era in renewable energy is arriving in Southwest Colorado this Friday. On Oct. 13, the Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton is firing up an innovative pellet stove, and a host of luminaries will be on-hand to watch the first spark.  

MSI’s Avon Hotel, a mountain research and educational facility in Silverton, will be the first building in the United States to take advantage of the new fuel, Whole Tree Pellets. The product was first introduced in 2004 by Forest Energy Corp. The corporation, as well  as the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and MSI are all jointly involved in the effort. The pellets are made entirely from beetle-kill piñon trees harvested from Colorado public lands.

“My hope is that we can help place a pellet manufacturing plant in Southwestern Colorado in the next couple of years,” said Rob Davis, president of Forest Energy Corporation. “We think the demand for lower-cost, locally grown, renewable fuels is out there. We hope the commercial markets will take advantage of these economical systems in the next few years,” said Davis.

Barb Sharrow, field manager of the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office, added, “It’s a win-win situation for all involved. Homes and businesses can benefit from a readily available renewable energy, and our forests and public lands are healthier for it.”

The MSI office was selected as a demonstration site for the stove and the pellets due to its elevation of 9,318 feet and dependence on propane. This Friday, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., will open the first bag of Whole Tree Pellets in Silverton, and proponents of sustainable forestry and renewable energy from around the region will be on-hand.

Southwest Colorado has thousands of acres of forests and woodlands in need of restoration and fire-risk reduction, and the pellets are a clean, carbon-neutral source of energy.


Local adventure racers survive Moab

Team (formerly Team Durango) braved the “storm of the century” last weekend to take 6th place in the Moab Xstream Expedition Adventure Race.

Considered one of Moab’s worst storms in the last 100 years, flash flooding, rains, snow and intense winds hampered last weekend’s race and forced organizers to shorten the course. Nonetheless, 23 four-person, co-ed teams, including Team, trekked to heights of 12,000 feet, mountain biked through thick muck for dozens of miles, paddled down the swollen Colorado River and rappelled more than 250 feet along cliffs streaming with waterfalls.

“All of the teams have something to be proud of as they all pressed on and persevered, despite torrential rain, 60 mph winds, flash floods, mud slides, snow squalls, hail, mechanical difficulties and more,” said Will Newcomer, race director.

Team BagelWorks took first place in the race’s four-person, co-ed category followed by Team Go Lite/Timberland Sprint and Team NW Nike ACG. Jan and Kim Bear, of Team Santa Fe Bear Pair, came in third overall and first in the two-person, co-ed racing category.

While Team, which included Rick Callies and Tom Ober, of Durango, Kiviok Hight, of Cortez (the team’s female member Ashlie Angel was sick and replaced at the last minute by Sandra McCullogh, of Wyoming) finished sixth, it was enough to bump them up to fourth place overall in the Adventure Xstream Adventure Race Series.

“It was epic,” said Callies. “There were rockslides, waterfalls, flash flooding and more rain then anyone can remember.”


Mesa Verde to hike entrance fee

The Cliff Palace has apparently gone up in value. Mesa Verde National Park has announced that it will be increasing the park entrance beginning next spring.

The cost of entry to the park is being bumped up to $15 per car beginning in late May next year for the three summer months. On Labor Day, the cost will return to its current $10. The entrance fee for motorcyclists, bicycles and buses will increase from $5 to $8 per person for the same three-month period, and the annual Mesa Verde pass will increase from $20 to $30. The increase is a part of the national fee demo program. The park argues that the funds will be used for backlogged maintenance, repair and rehabilitation projects, interpretation and education, signage and exhibits, and natural and historical resource preservation.

– compiled by Will Sands


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