by Alastair Lee Bitsoi
06 October 2011
CHURCH ROCK, N.M.—The
announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on
Sept. 29 that it will begin removing radioactive soil from the
largest abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo Nation came as no
surprise for local residents.
Radioactive soil from the
Northeast Church Rock Mine will be removed and placed in on top
of a disposal cell at the nearby United Nuclear Corporation mill
The removal was one of 14
disposal site plans the U.S. EPA considered and preferred when
it announced cleanup plans for the site in May 2009.
It took the U.S. EPA six years
of planning and over 10 public meetings to keep area residents
informed of the cleanup efforts.
Officials from the Navajo EPA,
who will provide oversight along with U.S. EPA of cleanup
operations by General Electric, said residents from the Red
Water Pond Community were informed of U.S. EPA's decision during
a Sept. 27 meeting held at the residence of Grace Cowboy and
Bradley Henio in Church Rock.
"Our first priority was to ship
mine waste out of the reservation to a repository in Utah," said
Larry King, a resident and member of the Eastern Navajo Dine
Against Uranium Mining, on Sept. 30.
U.S. EPA's concern, King said,
was the cost of shipping the radioactive waste off of Navajo
lands to a licensed disposal facility, which would have cost the
federal agency about $293.6 million to transport. This compares
to $44.3 million to transport to the UNC site. Also an issue is
shipping the radioactive waste through a non-Native community.
"I'm very disappointed in the
decision, but it was expected because it involved an indigenous
community," King said. "Yet, uranium was being transported
across Native lands in the 1970s and 1980s with no concerns at
Chris Shuey, a researcher with
the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque,
said from a public health standpoint people are still going to
be living near a radioactive site.
The potential impacts of this
decision are much wider in the community and the implications of
this site will apply to other mines on the Navajo Nation," said
Shuey, who has conducted research on the impacts of uranium in
the Church Rock area for the last 10 years.
"When we talk about the decision
EPA is making it's another insult to a long history of insult,"
According to the U.S. EPA, the
cleanup at mine will include the removal of 1.4 million tons of
radium and uranium contaminated soil, which could take up to
another seven to 10 years to clean up.
"This is an important milestone
in the effort to address the toxic legacy of historic uranium
mining on the Navajo Nation," said Jared Blumenfeld,
administrator for U.S. EPA's Pacific Southwest Region, in a
press release. "This plan is the result of several years of
collaboration between EPA, the Navajo Nation, and the Red Water
Pond Road community living near the mine."
U.S. EPA's cleanup plan also
includes sending waste containing high levels of radium or
uranium off-site for reprocessing or approved disposal, address
soil cleanup in a drainage east of the Red Pond Water Community,
and provide voluntary housing options during the cleanup for
community members directly impacted by the mine.
The removal of the waste to the
UNC mill site, which has been a Superfund site for the last 20
years, also satisfies the Navajo Nation's request to remove the
waste off trust land. The UNC mill site is located on private
land owned by UNC and GE.
Stephen B. Etsitty, executive
director for Navajo EPA, said cleanup decisions are handled on a
case-by-case basis and whether sites are time critical or
non-time critical, according to standards set by the federal
"A cleanup decision is based on
a variety of factors, such as, but not limited to if there is a
responsible party, the future use of the site, the amounts of
contamination that remains at a site, the level of background
radiation in the area, how bad the contamination is, community
input, and the status of Indian law," Etsitty said.
Etsitty said a U.S. 10th Circuit
Court decision in 2010, which focused on the definition of
Navajo Indian Country, ultimately weakened the Navajo Nation's
argument to have Church Rock mine waste material transported out
of Navajo country.
"The resulting remedy decision
is a compromise," Etsitty added.
In addition to the cleanup plan,
GE has agreed to provide scholarships for Navajo students to
attend the University of New Mexico or Arizona State University.
They also agreed to exercise Navajo preference for cleanup jobs,
improve the Pipeline Canyon Road and provide building material
for ceremonial hogans as requested by Red Water Pond Community
Michele Dineyazhe, remedial
project manager who will provide oversight for the Navajo EPA's
Superfund Program, said the specifics of a cleanup date have not
yet been determined.
Dineyazhe said a technical team
consisting of staff from GE, U.S. EPA, Navajo EPA, the state of
New Mexico, U.S. Department of Energy, and the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission will begin meeting to design the disposal
cell. The design phase will take three years.
"Something like this is a
milestone, but there is still so much work to be done,"
Dineyazhe said, adding that the Navajo Nation's position is to
continue addressing the legacy of uranium mining at other sites.
"Our intention is to do the best we can for the Navajo people
and our land."
The Northeast Church Rock Mine
operated from 1967 to 1982 and included an 1,800-foot shaft,
waste piles and several surface ponds.
GE conducted two previous
cleanups at the site - one in 2007 that included the removal and
rebuilding of one structure and the removal of over 40,000 tons
of contaminated soil in 2010.