“It’s strange how minerals and mines affect us humans,” mused Flora Barreras, staring up at the black brow of La Bajada mesa, rich in coal and ores, which lifts into the sky only two miles from her door.
The 71-year-old widow lost her husband to black lung disease 10 years ago. Since childhood, she has watched neighboring coal mines draw away the men of her native La Bajada village, where today only five permanent residents remain.
Now, just when she and her brother have bought 13 acres for farming along the Santa Fe River, which wends down from the mesa through the village, mining interests threaten the life of the river too. And yet, Flora Barreras welcomes the prospect of a new uranium mine at the nearby mesa.
Four miles away, residents of the village of Peña Blanca express mixed feelings about the possibility of renewed mining activity in their quiet and peaceful region. “Why here, in a populated area, on one of the longest rivers?” fumed one man vehemently opposed to the project. But other occupants viewed the prospect of a new uranium mine with attitudes ranging from acceptance to resignation.
The views of the residents differ, but one aspect of the current plan to reopen an abandoned uranium mine at the looming mesa seems unarguable: whether the proposed mine turns out to be a curse or a blessing, it promises to have a profound effect on the villages of La Bajada and Peña Blanca.
Recently, the US Forest Service, owner of the mesa, recommended a lease renewal for Lone Star Mining Co. to reactivate its old uranium mine, unworked for the past 10 years, in the river’s La Bajada floodlands. The application is being considered by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Environmentalists have opposed the proposal, mainly because of the danger of contaminating the Santa Fe River, which flows into the Rio Grande at Cochiti Dam and becomes a major irrigation source for farmers all the way south to Mexico.
They cite 1975 federal tests done in the Grants mining area that discovered drinking water with unacceptable levels of selenium, an arthritis-causing toxic element released from uranium waste. Radium, which can cause bone cancer, has been found in ground water near other uranium mines.
This year marks SFR’s 40th anniversary. Celebrate with us by reading excerpts of stories that have graced our pages through the years. A public hearing for a proposed zoning change to again begin mining at La Bajada Mesa is scheduled for 10 am Tuesday, Aug. 12 before the Santa Fe County Commission (102 Grant Ave.)