By Kathy Helms
PINEDALE, N.M. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s preferred alternative for cleaning up the Northeast Churchrock Mine site boils down to placing tailings on top of tailings at the United Nuclear Corp. mill site, at a cost of $44.3 million.
But some of the residents who turned out for Tuesday evening’s informational meeting at Pinedale Chapter House prefer the more costly alternative â€“ clean closure, or removal of all wastes to an off-site disposal facility at a cost of $293.6 million.
EPA’s Andrew Bain, Superfund project manager, said the cleanup action includes interim removal of soils around residences on Red Water Pond Road and the ultimate removal of 870,000 cubic yards of radium-226 and uranium-contaminated soil.
If the clean closure alternative is selected, the action could take up to nine years, whereas the preferred alternative would take about four years.
â€œWe’re currently in discussions with Navajo EPA and UNC to look at a portion of the site which is beyond the mine permit area. Some call it Red Water Pond Road. We also refer to it as the step-out area and the arroyo,â€ Bain said. To get a jump on things, work would begin this summer on those areas and would take roughly five months to move the contaminated soils to the mine site.
That would be a temporary measure until the rest of the mine site is addressed under the Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis cleanup plan. If the preferred alternative is chosen, work at the mine site would begin in 2011 and continue through 2015.
Bain said the fact that UNC/General Electric is talking about doing work in the Red Water Pond Road area first would go a long way toward reducing the risks to area families. Part of the cleanup also involves temporary housing for families in the immediate vicinity.
Robinson Kelly of Church Rock said he lives about 7 miles from the mine site and would like to have a private firm conduct an investigation after cleanup work is done because he doesn’t want to see any of the â€œbuddy-buddy system that goes on when all of this cleanup is going on: ‘Oh, you had the cleanup. OK, let’s take a look. OK, let’s take a picture. Walk it through as fast as you can, take a reading. OK, it’s good.’
â€œA private company will walk it, take their time, take their measurement, their sample, record it, share it with U.S. EPA, return it back. We need more time instead of the buddy-buddy system.â€
Dawn Robinson of EPA said any plans UNC has for the work they’re going to conduct has to be approved by EPA â€œand we do have an independent office that does quality assurance work that would review it.â€ Navajo EPA and various federal agencies also could review the plan.
â€œWhen you say you’re going to locate waste materials on top of materials, what assurance do we have that it won’t leak?â€ asked Noreen Kelly, who lives near the Rio Puerco. â€œThere’s always going to be suspicion on our part that it would leak eventually.â€
A representative of UNC/General Electric said that all materials in the existing cell are dry, so even though it is unlined, there is nothing to leak. However, a potential danger, according to an EPA official, could be that the water table would rise during a flood event and infiltrate the disposal cell, thus possibly creating contamination.
Candace Head-Dula of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, or MACE, asked whether there had been any modeling done on what the extra weight of 870 cubic yards would do to the existing tailings cell. Bain said there had not, but that EPA engineers feel the cell would be adequate.
â€œIt just annoys me to no end that we continue to refer to this as UNC when actually it’s owned by GE,â€ said Head-Dulla. She questioned whether EPA would still choose the same cleanup alternative if cost were not part of the criteria, adding that GE reported First Quarter 2009 earnings of $2.8 billion from continuing operations.â€
Robinson responded that cost would still be part of EPA’s assessment.
Chris Shuey of Southwest Research and Information Center, a MACE affilliate, said the Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis is a disappointment. â€œThe community wants the stuff taken out, but we can’t tell them what the impacts are because the impacts are not described in here.â€ He said the EE/CA is deficient.
â€œThis is an opportunity to implement the policy as set forth in the Navajo Nation’s comments to the National Remedy Review Board â€“ no more permanent radioactive waste disposal on Navajo land,â€ Shuey said. â€œYour document on which you’re about to make a decision is not sufficient to make the decision.â€ Bain responded that the analysis is backed by more than 500 supporting documents.
Gloria Harjo of Pinedale Chapter told EPA: â€œI know zilch about the mining contamination. This is the first time I’ve really heard anything on it, and being that the mine is very close to us here, I’m just getting really concerned about some of the discussions that are being made here.â€
Larry King of Churchrock told EPA representatives that they seriously need to consider the realignment of Pipeline Road, while Shirley Lewis who lives along Pipeline Road in Rio Lobo Canyon told EPA it is her understanding that the road was once highly contaminated.
â€œIn summer and in winter we are unable to get home. We were going to try to get some culverts and put it across because the fine dirt makes it impassable.â€ She asked GE to consider whether it can be done in the early stages of cleanup.
â€œThirty years have passed. Finally, the EPA, another ‘don’t do nothing’ federal government office, wakes up after too many of my people passed on due to sickness of this man-made poison,â€ said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Ernest D. Yazzie Jr., who represents Churchrock/Baahaali chapters. â€œIf the federal government did their job right the first time, this should never have happened.â€
Teddy Nez and the Red Water Pond Road Community Association sent a letter June 20 to General Electric, stating that they were told by Navajo EPA and Department of Justice staff that some of their families will have to move to temporary housing for as much as three months and that GE would pay to house only three families.
â€œYou must understand that nine families live in the three households located next to the arroyo, and another nine families live in two other households that are immediately west of the arroyo and are likely to be affected by the remediation,â€ the letter states.
â€œFurthermore, the Interim Removal Action Work Plan contains no details on how temporary housing will be secured and paid for, how the affected families will move their belongings and who will pay for those costs, and how individual livestock owners will be compensated for the time it will take to drive daily from Gallup to the community and back …â€
In a letter presented to Bain at the meeting, MACE representatives requested an extension of the comment period on the Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis from July 13 to Oct. 13 because â€œone month is simply too little time for the public to review and understand the cleanup alternatives.â€
The group also requested EPA schedule and hold public information meetings and public hearings in Churchrock and Gallup, and that copies of the analysis and supporting documents be placed at Pinedale, Churchrock and Mariano Lake chapter houses and at the New Mexico Environment Department in Santa Fe.