Uranium mines in Carson National Forest cleaned up after more than 60 years

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Two abandoned uranium mines in the Carson National Forest that for decades posed threats to human and ecological health have been cleaned up.

The Tusas East Slope and J.O.L. mine sites are located less than a mile from each other, about 10 miles west of Tres Piedras in the national forest off of Forest Road 712.

Gamma radiation and radium-226 levels in the waste rock piles at the two mines were "significantly greater" than background concentrations and possibly presented "a significant risk to frequent site visitors and ecological rectors," according to an environmental review prepared by Weston Solutions in 2016.

The exposed mining areas were open to the public - including people who ride all-terrain vehicles, hikers, hunters and wood collectors - for decades.

Both mines were active for only one year during the Cold War-fueled uranium boom.

The Tusas East Slope Mine, then owned by the Colonial Uranium Company, produced 8 tons of uranium ore during 1954 and left behind 752 cubic yards of unconfined and uncontrolled waste material in three piles and two pits, according to Forest Service documents.

The J.O.L. site was mined in 1956 by the Arriba Uranium Company. The mine saw 8 tons of uranium ore produced, but it also left behind 445 cubic yards of waste material in five piles, as well as a collapsed tunnel.

The New Mexico Abandoned Mine Land Program, housed under the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, identifies and helps clean up pre-1977 mines throughout the state.

According to the department's website, more than 340 million pounds of uranium was mined from New Mexico's private, state, federal and tribal land between 1940 and 2002. The department finished a four-year inventory of legacy (abandoned) uranium mines in 2010, paving the way for collaborations with other government agencies to "survey, prioritize and clean up" the mines.

Both Carson mines - as well as two former uranium mines in the Santa Fe National Forest - were among those identified by the inventory.

The original companies that owned the mines are no longer around, so the responsibility for the cleanup fell to the U.S. Forest Service. The agency decided in July to remediate both Carson sites and the High Peak Mine in Santa Fe, contracting with Engineering Remediation Resources Group for $294,911.74.

According to Maria McGaha, a regional environmental engineer with the Forest Service, the cleanup is among its smallest and least costly remediation projects.

The waste material from the Tusas East Slope and J.O.L. mines was dumped into a single excavated area and covered with dirt, reseeded and fenced.

McGaha said the risk of radioactive materials leaching into the ground and waterways was low enough to not warrant a bottom seal in the repository, but that the site would be monitored annually for five years.

The Forest Service inspected the work sites Sept. 18. Cleanup at all three sites was officially completed Sept. 22.

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