August 1, 2014
As we travel along Route 66 near Grants, N.M., it’s time to revisit uranium mining.
By Bill Langer
We depart Albuquerque and continue our westward journey along Old Route 66, which, in this part of New Mexico, roughly follows Interstate 40. Approaching Grants, the highway cuts through the lava flows of El Malpais (Spanish for the badlands). The rocks are only about 3,000 years old, making them among the youngest lava flows in the conterminous United States. My wife, Pam, and I have traveled this road dozens of times. Pam always drives because I get distracted by the lava and the rugged beauty of the landscape.
I love this stretch of road.
We could visit El Malpais National Monument located about 25 miles south of Grants. It takes determination to see much of the park, and the best way is by four-wheel drive or hiking. The ’60 Vette you and I are in for this nostalgic trip would not be well suited for that, but even from the road there are good views of the geology.
In lieu of detouring to El Malpais, let’s stop at the New Mexico Mining Museum located in Grants near old Route 66. The museum pays special tribute to uranium mining because the Grants district was a significant producer of uranium following its discovery in 1950 by local rancher Paddy Martinez.
The Grants district yielded more uranium than any other mining district in the United States, creating a booming economy and about 6,000 jobs. But there was an overproduction of uranium in the 1970s which lasted through the early 1980s. When combined with the dismantling of nuclear weapons by the United States and Russia, this led to large stockpiles of uranium. Furthermore, the Three Mile Island Incident (1979) created a perception in the United States that nuclear power was dangerous so the nation shifted to coal-fired electrical plants. Those events, combined with the 1982-83 recession, forced the closing of the mines and mills, and the loss of associated jobs. Recently, the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan caused by the 2011 earthquake-induced tsunami reignited the nuclear power debate.
Nevertheless, the long‐term demand for uranium remains largely constant, and future uranium mining in the Grants district remains a possibility. (Taken together, New Mexico and Wyoming constitute about two-thirds of the estimated uranium reserves in the country.) Less than half of the uranium resources have been mined from the Grants district, and when major companies abandoned properties, they left well-defined resources that include millions of dollars worth of value added in the form of exploration and development expenditures.
Traveling westward towards Bluewater, we catch a glimpse of distant tailing piles and settling ponds that serve as a reminder of the environmental contamination from past uranium mining. State, local, and federal agencies are addressing those health risks and environmental effects. Concurrently, some U.S. companies are obtaining permits to once again mine uranium. While there was no regulatory framework in place to control pre-1990 uranium mining, if mining ever returns to Grants, it will be controlled by much more robust environmental regulations.
The highway begins its slow ascent toward the Continental Divide, the highest point on Old Route 66 (7,263 feet). Cliffs formed in the Entrada Sandstone begin to parallel the road on the north. They create a spectacular view from here all the way past the border town of Gallup, N.M.
Bill Langer is a consulting research geologist who spent 41 years with the U.S. Geological Survey before starting his own business. He can be reached at Bill_Langer@hotmail.com
I love this stretch of road.