Uranium-mine cleanup on Navajo Reservation could take 100 years
CHURCH ROCK, N.M. -- Twin plateaus of radioactive rock and dirt stand as monuments to the daunting and expensive cleanup ahead.
The piles from two former uranium mines — Northeast Church Rock and Quivira — rose steadily on opposite sides of Red Water Pond Road until the Cold War's final decade, and now stand as silent hulks over Navajo homes and hogans up the valley. The federal government is working with two companies to finalize a plan to remove the waste and dispose of it a few miles down a state highway, consolidating it with another pile of radioactive mill waste farther from homes.
Estimated price: $131 million.
These piles are from just two of 521 old uranium mines — one for every 52 square miles — afflicting Navajo lands, not counting hundreds more sites with related contamination. And the Northeast Church Rock and Quivira piles are among only a few dozen for which the government can determine ownership.
"It's going to take 100 years," lamented Lillie Lane, Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency outreach coordinator.
The cost is too high and tribal EPA staffing too low to plan and execute quick action, she said. The office working on cleanup has 10 employees but needs 50, she said. The tribe asked for 25 full-time appointments from federal funds during a congressional hearing in 2007, but has not received them.
Likewise, the federal purse isn't up to the task. The entire budget for 2008-12 reservation cleanups was only $110 million, less than what it will eventually cost to clean up just these two mines.
"This whole thing is huge," Lane said. "It's homes. It's mines. It's our old dump site in Tuba City."
America's legacy of uranium extraction and toxic abandonment remains a bitter betrayal to Navajos here, on their reservation's eastern side, and across thousands of square miles through northern Arizona to Cameron on the west. Decades after the mines and mills served their purpose, hundreds remain as health threats, many with no clear path to cleanup.
Some mines left heaps of radioactive waste that sloughs or blows toward homes. Others were pits that have since been bulldozed over with a temporary soil covering. Still others were shafts that have been plugged but may still contaminate groundwater.
At Church Rock, at least, there is a plan.
The U.S. Department of Justice this spring announced a $5.15 billion settlement for nationwide environmental cleanups — the largest in U.S. history. It included about $1 billion to clean up 49 mine sites on Navajo lands, with $87 million to remove the Quivira waste. The settlement from Anadarko Petroleum Co. covers hazards left by Kerr-McGee Corp., which Anadarko purchased in 2006.
Anadarko officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The Northeast Church Rock pile across the road, owned by General Electric since its acquisition of United Nuclear Corp., will cost $44 million to move up the road to an existing tailings dump on private land nearer the spired sandstone tower that gives Church Rock its name. Hundreds of thousands of cubic yards will roll out on trucks from each.
For perspective, a hundred thousand yards of dirt would fill 5,000 "belly dump" truck trailers. If those trailers were placed end to end, they would extend nearly 38 miles.
The government will pay to move residents to temporary housing for up to five years to isolate them from any radioactivity that is kicked up. Then they will monitor to ensure soils around the homes are clean.
GE argued that the government shared responsibility because the uranium was mined for weapons, and in a 2012 consent decree, the government agreed to reimburse the company about a third of the cost.
"GE and UNC are committed to continue to work cooperatively with the U.S. government, the EPA, Navajo Nation, the state of New Mexico, and local residents to carry out interim cleanups and reach agreement on the remedy for the mine," the company said in a written statement to The Arizona Republic.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has completed just one mine cleanup on the reservation, and the logistical challenges at that site on the Arizona-Utah state line illustrate the enormousness of the task ahead.
Skyline Mine, in Monument Valley, was a uranium seam atop an 800-foot mesa requiring a cable tram for ore removal. After years of neglect, the waste that spilled down the cliff during rainstorms and that piled around former truck-loading areas on the valley floor remained hazardous to occupants of nearby homes.
"It was spreading out," EPA cleanup coordinator Jason Musante said, "basically by the flow of water."
His team rebuilt the tram, this time with the intent of returning contaminated rock and soil to the mesa top for burial in a polyethylene-lined, covered dump. The tribe prefers removal of wastes from its land, but EPA chose on-site isolation to avoid trucking loads through the nearby Navajo community of Oljato, Utah.
Musante also directed blasting and widening of a Jeep trail on the back of the mesa, to fit dump trucks and heavy loaders needed for the project. Twenty people worked the cleanup, using three dump trucks and several excavators. Needing water for dust control, they filled a tank at a well 5 miles away on the valley floor, then trucked 3,000 gallons at a time to another tank from which they pumped it in a new pipeline up the mesa.
The $8 million cleanup started in November 2010 and wrapped up in October 2011.
That was just one mine, with 30,000 cubic yards of waste. GE's Northeast Church Rock Mine, one of the biggest cleanups facing the reservation, contains 130,000 cubic yards waiting to be trucked away— a volume that would fill nearly 6,500 belly dump trailers.
Hundreds more mines have no cleanup dollars or plans. The Anadarko fund covers only 49 of the abandoned mines on the reservation. Another $3 billion or $4 billion likely will be needed, said Dave Taylor, an attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice.
"What we've got is we've got a good start," he said. But, he later added, "All we got is a good start."
One of the biggest problems is that out of 521 mines, the government only knows who is responsible for 78 of them.
The EPA is working to track down more, and to reach more cleanup settlements. But EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld said it's likely that the paper trail on some mines won't lead to companies that can pay for cleanup. More cash will be needed, perhaps using "legal theories" targeting uranium's "end users."
The end user of most of this uranium was the national nuclear-weapons program, a supply complex that the Department of Energy inherited when it was established.
"Our goal is to make sure that we do find responsible parties for all of them," Blumenfeld said.
Essentially, whatever cleanup costs the responsible parties don't pay for would have to be paid by federal funds approved by Congress, or possibly, in a scenario raised by Blumenfeld, from a lawsuit requiring the Energy Department to pay. The EPA would administer the cleanup.
An Energy Department spokeswoman said the agency could not comment. An EPA spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the agency asked for Energy Department help with the highest-priority mines but learned that the department lacked congressional budget authority.
The cleanup also affects the neighboring Hopi Tribe, whose boundary is close to the contaminated Tuba City dump. That dump, along with wastes from an old Tuba City uranium mill, threatens groundwater flowing into the Hopi Reservation.
Federal and tribal officials are working on plans to contain or remove it so the plume won't reach drinking wells.
The EPA is working under its second five-year cleanup plan initiated since 2008. It identified 43 sites, including those in Church Rock, as the top priorities, partly because they're near homes. An arc of mines around the western village of Cameron also made the list.
Only a couple of these 43 are covered by the Anadarko settlement, and the rest will cost another $700 million to $1 billion in all, Blumenfeld estimated. It means more settlements are needed before work starts.
Blumenfeld said he expects actual waste removal will begin on some of the priority sites within five years, but not on all. First, scientists and engineers must determine each site's best and safest strategy, whether that means total removal to a central repository or something else.
He acknowledged that the pace of progress is frustrating.
"We want to get it right," he said. "At the end, we want to be able to guarantee a community like Cameron that when we say it's cleaned up, it is cleaned up."
Even where there is a plan, Navajos have grown skeptical of government or corporate work progressing.
"Like a snail," said Annie Benally, a 56-year-old neighbor of the Church Rock mines.
She had stopped to chat with Lane and Chandra Manandhar as the two Navajo Nation environmental officials were touring mine sites. The EPA isn't serious, she told them.
"They just come out and check whether we're still here and whether we're glowing in the dark yet," she said.
Manandhar, a senior environmental engineer for the tribe, told her the EPA initially thought waste removal would start this year, but now it's looking like 2018.
"They're playing with us. We've been doing this since 2007," Benally said, recalling being forced to move into Gallup motels when crews scraped away tainted soils that had blown onto yards.
"I know it'll never be back to what it was," she said, "but give us back our ways of life, our ways of harmony. Right now we're stressed out. We see it in our kids. They're acting up in a way they shouldn't because their home is disturbed."
Lane stood holding her fleece jacket's collar over her mouth and nose, screening dust that blew off the piles.
Generations of Navajos are left wondering how the radiation has tainted their chromosomes, she said.
"I think we are still in the infant stages of seeing what the impacts are on the gene pool of the Navajo people," Lane said.
Cleanup took on new urgency after a 2007 U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing in Washington. Then-Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who is retiring this year, called the Navajos' plight "a modern American tragedy."
This summer, he said he is pleased with the government's attention to the problem since, though the pace remains frustrating. If officials can't identify all of the companies who mined the ore, he said, then the government should start spending to clean up the most dangerous sites.
"I refuse to accept the idea that we're just going to say we can't afford it," Waxman said. "We live in the richest country in the history of the world. We've got to make sure that we take care of people who are suffering from our actions of the past."
The 2007 hearing resulted in the 2008 five-year plan that spent $110 million in federal funds and $17 million from mining companies.
More than a fifth of that money went to delivering clean water to nearly 5,000 reservation residents who had been drinking tainted water. Several million dollars also went to removing mill-tainted dirt from Tuba City and trucking it to a Colorado dump, and to scanning and replacing contaminated homes.
The EPA also directed removal of more than 100,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil around the Church Rock sites, and completed the Skyline cleanup.
While much of the reservation's unwanted waste languishes, to the north, the Energy Department already has moved nearly 7 million tons of uranium from the banks of the Colorado River at Moab, Utah, by train to an engineered and covered dump on the desert. That cleanup, near the entrance to Arches National Park, is expected to top $1 billion on its own. It sends a 34-car train full of tailings north four days a week.
Taylor, the Navajo Nation attorney working on cleanup issues, suggested it's happening faster there because the Colorado supplies water to Los Angeles, a political force. Navajos, it seems, have less clout.
"We think that's a horrible environmental-justice issue," he said.
Unlike the Moab dump, where solid shale 2,400 feet deep shields the waste from groundwater, the plan at Church Rock is to pile waste onto a tailings heap that threatens both groundwater and downstream communities during heavy rains, said Paul Robinson, research director for the Southwest Research and Information Center, an environmental and public-health group in Albuquerque.
The Moab cleanup occurred because Utah's congressional delegation demanded it, he said. White leaders also demanded and, by the 1990s, got full removal of tailings piles from Durango and Grand Junction, Colo., and from South Salt Lake, Utah, he said. Most of the reservation's waste remains where it was dug or milled.
"There's science and then there's politics," Robinson said.
One "unfortunate silver lining" from mining is that the cleanup will provide jobs on Navajo land, said Blumenfeld, the U.S. EPA official. For the 43 priority projects alone, he said, he expects there will be 1,000 positions. The EPA has invested in a hazardous-materials training program in Albuquerque to prepare Navajos for the work.
"My personal goal is to make sure as many of these jobs go to the (Navajo) nation as possible," he said.
At Church Rock this spring, 58-year-old Peterson Bell sat on a folding chair outside his shack gazing east into the sun's reflection off the Quivira waste pile.
A great-nephew who he considers his grandson, Kravin, ran circles around him and the home, randomly squeezing a squirt pistol at skittering sheep, or at unseen foes on the desert. He was one of three siblings living in Bell's little house, along with their parents.
The youngest, a week-old girl, rested in her mother's arms inside Bell's little house.
"This is the next generation," he said, referring not just to his family but to kids who hop the school bus up and down the road. "Most of these young kids have asthma."
He worked in the mine within view of his doorstep, as a cager or elevator man from 1974 to 1982.
"We went in there for the money," he said while seated in the same outdoor chair on another day this spring, "because it was the only place with money coming out of it."
He's unsure whether the radiation contributed to his diabetes. At any rate, the federal law that provides compensation to early miners has a 1971 cutoff date, so his tenure isn't covered.
"They sweep it under the rug," Bell said, complaining that all these years later the mess is still across the road from him. "It's Native Americans; that's what the White man does. They came in and desecrated our home."
The low hum of ground-sucking vacuum pipes underlay his speech with non-stop white noise. It came from a remediation project that General Electric installed to vent diesel that United Nuclear Corp. spilled in the soil while stacking up a second 1980s mesa of uranium tailings just around the toe of a butte.
Bell doubts he'll live to see the end.
"They said they'd do a five-year plan, but what did they do?" he said. "Maybe it's up to the young kids to take over."
If Navajo environmental official Lillie Lane is right, most of the kids won't live to see the end, either.