DC talks this week on Navajo uranium impacts
By Kathy Helms
November 05, 2007
WINDOW ROCK – In 1989, the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency and its Superfund program received funding by U.S. EPA, Region 6, in Dallas, to assess abandoned uranium mines within the reservation. At that time, Navajo came up with a list of 64 sites.
Though it wasn’t Navajo who made the mess, profited by it, and then pulled a disappearing act – it has been the Navajo Nation which largely inherited the cleanup operations that have been conducted to date.
The Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Department has done the best it could with funds from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining, according to Stephen Etsitty, executive director of Navajo EPA.
“They’ve done a lot mitigate the physical features of many abandoned uranium mines across the Nation to prevent problems related to access and to provide a measure of physical safety. However, this work over recent years has been compromised in its integrity,” Etsitty said at a recent hearing in Grants before the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee.
“Erosion and other weathering processes have damaged the integrity of some of those barriers that were constructed and we have now radioactive hazardous substances beneath the soil barriers being released into the environment.
“We know that these conditions exist at several sites that were also reclaimed by U.S. EPA, Santa Fe Railroad, and U.S. Department of Energy near Prewitt, N.M,” Etsitty said.
Despite efforts to have the various entities readdress these sites, resources are hard to come by and are not now readily available to ensure long-term operation and maintenance, he said.
This week in Washington, U.S. Reps. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Rick Renzi, R-Arizona, will host a Navajo Nation uranium roundtable to examine the health effects and environmental impacts of past uranium mining as well as the problems and concerns of the Navajo Nation with proposed new uranium mining.
Of major concern to Navajo, especially in the Eastern Agency of New Mexico, is jurisdiction. Hydro Resources Inc. plans in-situ recovery operations within areas U.S. EPA has determined are Navajo Indian Country. The ultimate decision, however, now lies before a federal court in San Francisco.
Mining also is proposed at Mount Taylor – one of the four sacred mountains defining the homeland of the Navajo people – as well as within 2 miles of the reservation’s borders.
Navajo Nation Vice President Bennie Shelly cautioned mining company representatives at the meeting that Navajo is prepared to meet any jurisdictional challenges in court, because contamination does not adhere to lines on a map.
Etsitty said one question that continues to come up is, “Why do interests in another round of uranium development seem to take precedence over the need to restore human health and the environment?” He questioned whether current regulations are sufficient to ensure proper cleanup.
“We always have to worry in environmental management, if an owner/operator walks away, will the appropriate authorities â€¦ step in to correct the problems that are left behind.
“As we have brought up many times before, we have not seen much of this type of activity happening in our area. It begs the question: Have we learned anything from our current uranium legacy?” Etsitty said.
“Throughout my tenure at Navajo EPA, I have personally visited several communities where pollutants have migrated from abandoned uranium mines, from capped uranium tailings, from uncapped uranium waste piles â€¦ and I know that we’ve seen, in many instances, how people’s livelihoods have been changed, and we’ve heard a lot of stories about the decline in overall health.
“Some of these abandoned uranium mines and waste piles are located on adjoining state, federal and private lands. Sitting on our side of the fence, we know â€¦ there are no magic boundaries that prevent the migration of hazardous pollutants from popping over from one jurisdiction into another,” he said.
New Mexico does not have a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, the federal Superfund program which mandates cleanup of hazardous substance releases, Etsitty said. “Nor does the state have a comprehensive reclamation law, and uses only the New Mexico Mining Act.”
“We know that in one instance, a situation on our reservation, that for approximately seven years United Nuclear Corp. challenged the state’s authority to assert the New Mexico Mining Act at the Northeast Churchrock abandoned uranium mine site, and we know there was confusion over jurisdiction.
“The government operated on the assumption that the mine was located on state jurisdiction. We found out recently that it was actually located on Navajo Nation trust land.
“The state agencies had working knowledge about off-site migration of hazardous substances to eight Navajo residences,” he said, but “there was never any compelling for the responsible parties – in this case, UNC and their parent company, General Electric – to address these impacts.
“The state agency, Mining & Minerals Division, reviewed the plan to close and characterize the work that needed to be done at this mine site. When we finally cleared up some of this confusion over jurisdiction and found out that we had a better hand to play regarding jurisdiction, we asked U.S. EPA Region 9 to take the lead in getting the Northeast Churchrock site cleaned up. We’ve worked alongside them since 2006,” Etsitty said.
Bill Brancard, division director for New Mexico Mining & Minerals Division, said that in terms of reclamation, abandoned mines from the 1950s and 1960s often were on a smaller scale than those developed in later years.
“There were no regulatory controls on those mines and in a lot of cases, companies packed up and walked away. â€¦ So we have an issue about how to get those old mines cleaned up.”
Of course, it’s difficult to develop a comprehensive cleanup strategy when it is not even known how many mines there are that need to be dealt with.
“As the issue started to grow in the last year or so, I wanted to try to get a grip on just how many sites are there out there that the Bureau of Reclamation project has no control over,” Brancard said. “So I looked around for a good list of how many mines were out there and what happened to them. What we discovered was there really were no great lists.”
Using data from N.M. Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources, U.S. EPA, Bureau of Land Management, State Mine Inspector, Mining & Minerals, and other state, tribal and federal agencies, Brancard said they came up with what he believes is “a pretty good list” of mines that had been in the production of uranium.
“We came up with about 260 mines,” he said. “You’ll hear a larger number from some other agencies. There are probably two reasons for that: One, we probably did a lot of lumping where some people might be splitting. In other words, if there was a company that had several openings in one section, they may have given them different names, but effectively, they were operated as one mine and we called it one mine.
“But probably the biggest difference – what we didn’t cover – were non-producing openings, and there are, in our estimate, over 400 that we know of, openings or facilities out there where there is disturbance but there is no production associated with it. These can be, in some instances, such as health and safety, a significant problem if there’s a shaft that has not been closed,” he said.
“In the final analysis, higher than 50 percent of the sites out there have no regulatory authority that has required reclamation,” he said. The next step for his division is to try to get out in the field, visit the sites and verify their status, then figure out how to get the work done.
Etsitty said, “We can only speculate about the costs to clean up our land. We can only speculate on the cost of human toll. We agree that there may never be sufficient resources to undo the damages caused by past uranium mining and milling.
“Nevertheless, we cannot allow renewed interest in uranium development to overshadow our joint responsibilities to do things better, and to restore the land, the air and the water, and to do everything possible to protect our citizens now and for generations to come.”