There are more than 300,000 enrolled tribal members of the Navajo Nation – the second most populous tribe in the nation, according to 2010 Census Bureau data. When Uranium mining surged in the U.S. in the 1940s, mining activities in New Mexico centered around the northwestern part of the state – on and adjacent to Native American tribal lands like the Navajo Nation.

Native American workers were disproportionately and negatively hit by the environmental and economic impacts of the mining industry. Their land was, and still is, contaminated. Those looking for work lacked a consistent income as the boom-and-bust industry wreaked havoc. More than 80 years later, the communities of northwestern New Mexico are still subject to the legacy of mining.

A new report from UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) explores the economic impact mines continue to have on New Mexico, even during remediation, and makes recommendations for how to best support the most heavily impacted communities.

The Economic Opportunities and Challenges of Uranium Mine Cleanup in New Mexico” outlines the environmental challenges, and also the economic impacts mining cleanup has on surrounding areas. According to the report, uranium mining leaves behind severe environmental contamination. That includes about 1100 abandoned mining, milling and exploratory drilling sites in northwest New Mexico as well as extensive groundwater contamination.

“Native, especially Navajo communities have suffered the majority of the consequences of this contamination. Native populations, many of whom were employed in uranium mining operations, also suffered severe economic dislocation following the collapse of the industry.” – UNM BBER report.

Although the uranium mining industry in New Mexico collapsed nearly 30 years ago, only recently have there been efforts towards remediation. Progress is slow – few records exist of who owns and is responsible for the environmental damage because leasing agreements changed hands frequently during periods of boom and bust. To complicate matters, it’s not just environmental remediation that needs to be done but economic remediation as well.

“BBER conducted over 75 interviews with unique individuals, agencies, or companies working in fields related to uranium mine remediation, regionally,” the report states. “In these interviews, professionals commonly described a willing, able workforce with only piecemeal employment opportunities available. The mismatch of opportunities with skills is a key challenge the state will face when engaging in uranium mine remediation activities.”

The report concludes with 12 recommendations for New Mexico State agencies to systematically address economic and environmental impacts of mining cleanup:

  • Create a Central Repository for Information
  • Identify and Engage Key Stakeholders
  • Develop a Unified Plan with Stakeholders
  • Establish a Specialized Small Business Assistance Center
  • Create Shared Workspace for Businesses
  • Create a Facility to Provide Support or Guarantee for Bonding
  • Advance Consistent Safety Certification Training Programs
  • Facilitate Collaboration among Higher Education Institutions
  • Create Opportunities for Worker Placement Locally
  • Prioritize Environmental Remediation as a Target Industry
  • Generate Pathways for Greater Innovation
  • Continue Research on the Effects of Unremediated Uranium Mines

Addressing these challenges will require the involvement of all stakeholders: federal, State and local governments, Native nations, private landowners, private sector firms, educational institutions and community organizations.

Read more about the recommendations in the full BBER report.