Valencia County was established by Mexico in 1844 and was confirmed as part of the New Mexico Territory in 1852. It gradually lost territory to the east, with Torrance County created in 1904. Until 1981, the county extended from the edge of the Manzano Mountains all the way west to the Arizona border. In June 1981, the county lost almost 81 percent of its territory upon the creation of Cibola County, which occupies the western-most portion of Valencia County’s former area. Geology played an important role in this historic decision.
In 1950, discovery of uranium ore by Paddy Martinez, a Navajo shepherd near Haystack Mesa, north of Grants, started a uranium mining boom in the vicinity of Grants that lasted about 30 years. The deposits were found in a wide area named the “Grants Mineral Belt.” The population of Grants grew from 2,200 to 50,000 within a few months, and the area yielded 60 percent of all uranium mined in the U.S. from mines such as the Jackpile Mine. That sudden growth around Grants prompted the creation of a new County, named Cibola, carved out of Valencia County.
Unfortunately, the uranium mining industry collapsed in the 1980s, leaving many legacy environmental problems with toxic mine waste piles and contaminated groundwater in former Western Valencia County.
The former Jackpile mine is now a Superfund Cleanup site. With the price of uranium doubling over the past five years, and the current partial dependence by the U.S. to import uranium from Russia, there is great interest in renewed uranium mining in the U.S.
Proposed uranium extraction projects, include a mining method where water containing leaching chemicals is injected in the ground on one side of the uranium-rich area, then pumped on the other side, and the uranium is extracted from the water. Such circulation extraction would eliminate the large amounts of mine tailings, but also may create uncontrolled groundwater pollution.
The New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants presents a recreated uranium mine worth visiting.