Panel rips into feds; Tells them they’ve had 30 years to cleanup uranium waste and have done nothing

Independent – October 27-28, 2007: Panel rips into feds; Tells them they’ve had 30 years to cleanup uranium waste and have done nothing

  By Kathy Helms
Diné Bureau

WINDOW ROCK — The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee plans to “hold feet to fire,” as Rep. Elijah Cummings succinctly put it, to ensure the Navajo people do not have to wait another 60 years to see something done about the contamination across Navajoland from past uranium mining and milling activities.

“I think the federal government has a responsibility, but that’s not just you, it’s us too,” Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., told representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Authority, Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs at a hearing this week in Washington.

“The Congress has a responsibility for oversight and that’s the purpose of the hearing today,” Waxman said Tuesday. “But as part of our responsibility, we have to give your agencies the tools you need to carry out your job.”

He asked federal agency representatives to think about what authority and funding they need to clean up the contamination of the Navajo Nation and to address the resulting health problems, and to come back Dec. 12 to give a progress report.

“I think we need to have a number of things done simultaneously. I think the federal government needs to conduct a comprehensive health assessment of the risks posed to the health of the Navajo people by the contamination from uranium mining and milling,” Waxman said.

“Secondly, the U.S. EPA should conduct detailed site assessments of the priority mine sites and at least basic assessments at every abandoned mine site. Rigorous sampling of groundwater at these sites is essential.

“Thirdly, where we have the data, we need to conduct cleanups. Work has to be initiated or accelerated and in consultation with Navajo homeowners, U.S. EPA needs to remove occupied radioactive homes and provide replacement homes.

“Major surface and groundwater remediation efforts must begin at the Northeast Churchrock Mine site. The Navajo people shouldn’t have to wait 60 years for groundwater contamination from uranium mills to be cleaned up.”

Waxman said that if the Department of Energy needs an extension of statutory authority to clean up the Tuba City landfill, where contamination migrated from the Rare Metals uranium mill, “it’s our job to get you that authorization, and we’ll do it.”

“I really don’t want to hear EPA say it’s DOE, and DOE say it’s the Indian Health program, and the Bureau of Indian management to say it’s not our job because we don’t’ have the expertise or the budget. It’s the federal government’s responsibility. All of us need to take it seriously.”

Churchrock levels
Waxman asked Wayne Nastri, regional administrator for U.S. EPA-Region 9, about the Northeast Churchrock Mine site. “USEPA went out and took radiation tests at this site. In the mine areas, the radium levels were as high as 875 picocuries per gram. The EPA’s standard for deciding whether to clean up a site is 3.34 picocuries per gram, so that’s 270 times the EPA standard.

“Even in the back yards of two residences which are farther away from the mine, the radium levels were up to 30 picocuries per gram. That’s nine times the EPA standard. Those radiation levels pose an exceptionally high cancer risk,” he said.

“In response to these exceptionally high levels of radiation, EPA removed the top 6 inches of soil from the few residential yards. Mr. Nastri, that didn’t take care of the whole problem at the site, did it?”

“No, it did not,” Nastri said, adding that EPA removed about 6,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil. “There’s roughly 140 acres, or roughly 1.4 million cubic yards that need to be addressed.”

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., asked Nastri about contamination in Red Valley and Cove areas, “Because high levels of uranium in drinking water can cause kidney failure, groundwater contamination is a real concern.” She said EPA conducted water sampling in 1998 and 1999.

“You sampled 226 wells and springs and found that one reading taken in the mountains above a school in Cove was over 20 times the EPA standard. Now, the EPA standard, I’m going to assume, is the standard for a white healthy male and not for children. That’s what it usually is, am I correct?” she asked Nastri, who responded, “I’ll stipulate to your assertion, sure.”

“I want to know if EPA has been back since 1999 to retest this area,” McCollum said.

“Not to my knowledge, no,” Nastri said.

“Has EPA done any groundwater remediation at any of the mine sites at the Navajo Nation?” she asked.

“Not to my knowledge,” Nastri responded.

“Well, this is troubling, because comprehensive groundwater testing is essential,” McCollum said. “The Navajo, like anyone else in this country, are entitled to clean drinking water for themselves and for their livestock. And I believe the EPA needs to do more than just one round of spotty sampling.

“The NRC is in the process of allowing a company, HRI, to start possibly looking at doing this water slurry type of (uranium) extraction. This is very concerning and troubling to me. You don’t even know currently what the status of the water is and yet the NRC is looking at issuing a mining license and even contaminating possibly more water. And I point out to you, that the U.S. Geological Survey does not share the same confidence that the NRC does on this type of mine extraction,” she said.

Passing time
Cummings, D-Md., referred to Nastri’s comment that site assessments and cleanup take time. “I can understand that. But while time passes, Mr. Nastri, people get sick. People die. People develop kidney disease. Babies are born with birth defects. Bone cancer develops and gets worse; lung cancer, leukemia, while we wait.”

In reference to a five-year study of Navajo homes believed to have potentially harmful radon levels, Cummings told Nastri, “Let’s assume there are people living there. What happens to them during that time? And I’m just curious as to whether you would have your families in that environment for five or six years.”

Nastri said there are a number of challenges that EPA must consider, including that the Navajo people do not necessarily want to move out from their homes. “So even though we’ve provided homes — that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can get somebody to move out,” he said.

“What you’re telling me is you don’t even know if people live in the houses,” Cummings said.

“That’s correct,” Nastri responded.

“And what I’m saying is that the diseases that I just stated – kidney, birth defects, bone cancer, lung cancer, leukemia — these people could be suffering from these ailments, but you don’t even know whether they’re in the house. I mean, we do pay you, don’t we?” Cummings asked.

Waxman referred to an EPA inspection of Navajo homes in 1975 near an abandoned uranium processing plant in Cane Valley where at least 17 of the 37 homes tested contained radioactive ore or tailings. “They didn’t ask for more time, they just said they didn’t have enough money so nothing was done,” he said.

“So, I guess I’m still a little perplexed about whether you really need time and that’s all you need, because in 1975, over 30 years ago, EPA knew about the homes and didn’t do anything about it. …This is really shocking when I hear you need more time, and this was 32 years ago.”

32 years ago
McCollum said the Churchrock Spill happened on July 16, 1979, “and they’re just now getting around to cleaning it up in 2007, so I see your point, Mr. Chair. I even think in this instance, we should be just outraged at how long all this has taken.”

DOE’s David Geiser said that when the Tuba City mill site was cleaned up, the radioactive material now found at the Tuba City landfill was not exposed, however, due to erosion, it has surfaced.

McCollum told him, “This site is right across the street from where Ray Manygoats lives. So Mr. Geiser, does the DOE agree that the radioactive material in this vicinity probably came from the Tuba City mill?”

“From the information that we have, yes, it probably did,” Geiser said.

“OK. The DOE hasn’t been able to clean up this property because your statutory authorization to conduct surface remediation expired in 1998. So, have you asked Congress to extend this authority? And if you did, could the DOE clean up this site?” McCollum asked.

“The authority was extended several times to get to 1998. We have not asked since then to reauthorize it. We would have the capability to remediate that site,” Geiser said, adding that DOE is prepared to work with Congress should it decide to reauthorize them to do the work.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., ranking minority member of the oversight committee, asked Geiser, “Who is responsible for the cleanup of uranium mines and mills that were left behind?” He said it was the responsibility of DOE to clean up the four inactive uranium mill tailings sites.

“How about the 1,200 mines?” Davis asked, to which Geiser responded, “That was not the Department of Energy’s responsibility.”

“Who is responsible for that? It’s not Energy,” Davis said. “The Navajos didn’t cause it, did they?”

Geiser said the Environmental Protection Agency is working with the Navajo Nation on the abandoned mines.

“What kinds of health studies have been done on the Navajo Nation to determine the impact of uranium mines on the public health in the area?’ Davis asked. Geiser deferred to Indian Health Service.

This is the U.S.
Robert McSwain, IHS acting director, said there have been a couple of studies done, but nothing large-scale.

Cummings remarked, “It’s so easy to have a conspiracy of silence and do-nothingness. Are any of you outraged by what you’ve heard from the first panel? Anybody?”

McSwain said, “Certainly I wasn’t this outraged,” before coming to the meeting. “The fact is we have a lot of health care providers out there on the ground, who are attempting to provide the best health care possible. The fact is, people keep coming in and they’re sick and they’re ill.”

“And some of them are dying,” Cummings said.

“Yes, and we can’t stop the reason. That’s not our role,” McSwain said. “We work diligently on the water side of it within the scope of our authority, but again, not very successful, accepting the fact that we’re doing a lot of dancing out there trying to get around these leavings.

“This is the United States of America. We can do better,” Cummings said. “These are human beings! They share this land with us. And it’s just not right. I would suggest that if we cannot get more empathy for our fellow human beings, maybe somebody needs to replace you guys and let us have some other people who are outraged by all of this.

“I can understand Mr. (Tom) Udall’s concern. At some point, somebody’s got to holler and say, ‘No, no. We’re not going to have it this way.’ We can say, ‘Let’s wait, let’s wait, let’s wait, let’s wait’ — and people will die. But if it were our families, if it were our children, we would go crazy,” Cummings said.

October 27-28, 2007
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Panel rips into feds; Tells them they’ve had 30 years to cleanup uranium waste and have done nothing

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