Farmington — The Navajo Nation is among those hoping a recent court decision will provide millions of dollars to clean up areas impacted by uranium mining and milling activities.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper decided last Thursday that Anadarko Petroleum Corp. is liable for billions of dollars in environmental cleanup costs, including uranium mines and mills that were once operated on the Navajo Nation by the Kerr-McGee Corp. However, Anadarko officials say the decision is not final and have indicated they will appeal.
Uranium mining started on tribal lands in 1944 to provide a source for atomic power. Over the years, that activity left more than 500 abandoned uranium mines, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Kerr-McGee started mining and milling uranium in Arizona's Lukachukai Mountains in 1952 and eventually built a 77-acre uranium disposal cell in Shiprock, which the company operated from 1954 to 1963.
The company also operated numerous businesses that left a trail of contamination across the United States, including radioactive thorium in Illinois, rocket fuel waste in Nevada, and creosote waste in the Midwest, Northeast and South.
The court decision, issued in the Southern District of New York, found that Anadarko and Kerr-McGee acted with "intent to hinder" certain creditors, including the Navajo Nation, when the company fraudulently conveyed assets to Tronox Inc. to evade its debts, which included its liability for environmental clean-up at toxic sites across the country.
Tronox, a paint materials company, filed for bankruptcy in January 2009.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York, Anadarko could pay between $5.1 billion and $14 billion for cleanup costs, with the Navajo Nation potentially receiving $880 million to $2.4 billion.
"Any funds resulting from this lawsuit are welcomed and long overdue," Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said in a statement.
The tribe was among claimants that included the United States, 11 states, four environmental response trusts, and a trust for the benefit of tort plaintiffs.
Navajo Nation Attorney General Harrison Tsosie said although uncertainties surround the appeal process, the Dec. 12 decision is still cause for celebration.
"A federal judge has issued a ruling that could result in over a billion dollars being made available for cleaning up some of the uranium contamination from past uranium mining and processing on the Navajo Nation," Tsosie said.
In a statement, Anadarko CEO Al Walker said the company disagrees with the memorandum of opinion.
"We fully expect to pursue every avenue available to us through the appellate process to protect the interests of our stakeholders, once a final judgment including damages has been rendered," Walker said.
The corporation also noted that the memorandum of opinion is not a final judgment.
The court also ordered the parties to submit further briefing during the next 60 days and invited oral argument for the final ruling on damages.