Navajo Nation and EPA Collaborate to Clean Up Contaminated Soil from Uranium Mining
On Tuesday May 1st, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that they will clean up contaminated soil from past uranium mining at five residential sites on Navajo land. The contamination comes the Church Rock mining site, which was allowed to sit exposed for 25 years.
The Church Rock mine is located near Gallup, New Mexico. It was operated by United Nuclear Corporation from 1967 to 1982. During this time there were regular discharges of waste water into the surrounding arroyos. On July 16, 1979, the mill dam burst and released an estimated 94 million gallons of acidic radioactive waste water into the Pipeline Arroyo. This spill released the largest volume of low-level radioactive waste in U.S. history.
In October 2003, a host of organizations and government agencies including, the Church Rock Chapter, Southwest Research and Information Center of Albuquerque, New Mexico Environmental Department, U.S. EPA, Navajo Nation EPA, Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Lands Program, Navajo Nation Water Resources Department and Dine College, conducted a series of sampling activities that included the Church Rock site. The results confirmed that radiological contamination to Navajo residential properties required immediate mitigation.
In a recent press release, Navajo President Joe Shirley, Jr., praised Navajo EPA for their persistent work since 2003 to persuade U.S. EPA of the need for this clean up. They continue working to ensure that the land and home sites are restored to harmony in the traditional Navajo way.
President Shirley, said, "the U.S. EPA and the Navajo Nation EPA are working together to ensure that personal and cultural needs of the affected residents are properly addressed."
Based on elevated levels of radium, EPA will remove the soil surrounding five homes to a depth of six inches. EPA will also check within the homes to remove contaminated dust or infrastructure. During the clean up, residents will be moved to a hotel.
Exposure to elevated levels of radium may cause fractured teeth, bone and other cancers, cataracts and anemia.
Cleanup of the residential sites is estimated to cost over $2 million. U.S. EPA has ordered United Nuclear to pay $900,000 for the disposal of the soil off Navajo lands. U.S. EPA will cover the remainder and seek reimbursement from United Nuclear.
Navajo EPA is concerned that the mine site itself has not been cleaned up, which may allow the residential areas to be contaminated again. Currently, two underground mineshafts, a pile of uranium mined waste material, several unlined surface ponds and buried waste remain. One home is located only 786 feet from an abandoned waste pile. U.S. EPA has committed to having the entire site cleaned up within the year.
In addition to the Church Rock site, 1,300 abandoned uranium mines have been identified across the reservation by Navajo officials and the federal government. They are currently prioritizing 40 of these sites for clean up.
President Shirley, said, "We stood alone up against large uranium development corporations for the longest time, and the Navajo Nation's EPA's persistence in advocating for our safety, our culture and our sovereignty is finally paying off."