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Martinez administration to fight for uranium cleanup after NM misses out on settlement talks

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — New Mexico is offering to help the Navajo Nation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figure out how to best use $1 billion for cleaning up abandoned uranium mines throughout the region.

The offer was made public Wednesday as the state scrambles for a seat at the table of what is expected to be a massive undertaking.

Right now, New Mexico now has no say in how the funds are spent as the result of a 2009 decision by former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson's administration and a bankruptcy expert in Attorney General Gary King's office. At the time, the officials agreed it would not be in the state's best interest to seek environmental-cleanup funds from a company that had filed for bankruptcy.

The federal government ended up reaching a $5.15 billion settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp. in December. The deal resolved a legal battle over Tronox Inc., a spin-off of Kerr-McGee that Anadarko had acquired in 2006. Kerr-McGee had operated dozens of uranium mines in the area, including 21 in New Mexico.

Some of the settlement funds have been earmarked for cleaning up contaminated sites in the Navajo area, including sites near Ambrosia Lake just east of the reservation.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's administration said Wednesday the state lucked out in that the definition of the sites to be cleaned up is broad enough to include those in northwestern New Mexico.

"The state of New Mexico should not have declined to participate in this lawsuit back in 2009," Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said in a statement. "That was a major mistake that needs to be addressed for the sake of protecting our environment."

Attorney General King is now seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. Phil Sisneros, a spokesman for King's office, said it would have been the Environment Department's decision in 2009 whether to move forward, but there were concerns of exposing the department to litigating future environmental claims through a bankruptcy court in New York.

Flynn and state Energy and Minerals Secretary F. David Martin sent a letter Tuesday to the Navajos, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice outlining New Mexico's commitment to help in any way it can.

The Environment Department oversees discharge permits and abatement plans for several of the sites in New Mexico. State officials say that technical and historical knowledge of the sites could prove valuable as the EPA and Navajo Nation decided how to tackle the cleanup project.

David Taylor, an attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice, said he looks forward to working with New Mexico. The contamination, which has left a legacy of disease and death on the Navajo Nation, knows no boundaries, he said.

The state Environment Department said cleanup at each of the sites could stretch into the millions of dollars and the effect on groundwater could still be unknown.

Among the specific sites to receive cleanup funds are the Quivira Mines near Church Rock, New Mexico, and a mill in Shiprock, New Mexico, near the San Juan River that once processed uranium ore.

The federal government has been working with the Navajos for years to address the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on the reservation, but their efforts have been hampered by remediation costs and the unwillingness of some companies to pay for cleaning up their previous operations.

The recent settlement is expected to make a big dent in the cleanup effort, officials said.

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