Uranium mine cleanup work detailed for council

Noel Lyn Smith
Jared Blumenfeld, center, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator for Region 9, addresses the Navajo Nation Council at the spring session on Tuesday in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials provided an update on Tuesday about cleanup activities for abandoned uranium mining sites on the Navajo Nation.

Jared Blumenfeld, EPA regional administrator for Region 9, told the Navajo Nation Council that since 1984, the agency has provided $93 million in support of the tribe’s environmental programs.

He added that more than $100 million has gone toward infrastructure improvements, and the EPA has partnered with other federal agencies to provide approximately $100 million for cleanup activities.

This week, the agency will award a $324,000 grant to the tribe’s abandoned mine land reclamation program to continue the efforts, he said.

Blumenfeld said EPA officials met with the tribal president's office prior to visiting the council's spring session.

He said the discussion at the president’s office centered on the second five-year plan, which will continue cleanup efforts by the agency and its partners. Under the first five-year plan, 47 homes received remediation, and 520 mines were screened, while stabilization or cleanup work at nine mines was completed.

At left, Linda Reeves, remedial project manager with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, presents a report about cleanup work for abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation during the spring session on Tuesday in Window Rock, Ariz.

Linda Reeves, remedial project manager with the EPA, said the agency formed a number of partnerships with federal agencies to invest more than $100 million to complete the first five-year plan.

Reeves said 46 mines have been identified as "high priority" through the work.

“We're very focused on finding the companies that mined there, that left the mine waste, so that we can use our authorities to have them clean up the mines,” Reeves said.

The second five-year plan continues cleanup activities and utilizes money from the 2014 settlement by the Kerr-McGee Corp. and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. that provided more than $1 billion to address uranium mines and mills on tribal land. Blumenfeld said the settlement will clean up 50 uranium mines once operated by Kerr-McGee in the Lukachukai Mountains and the Ambrosia Lake area.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, left, talks to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials on Tuesday about the effect uranium mining has on chapters she represents in the Northern Agency.

Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said the seven chapters she represents in the Northern Agency have participated in five or more studies that examine the health impact of uranium exposure.

“The community members are tired of being studied. They want cleanup,” Crotty said.

Delegate Nelson BeGaye reminded EPA officials the United States picked “a prime site” for uranium mining in order to compete in the nuclear energy race.

“Now, they’re providing pennies to clean up the damage,” BeGaye said. “The almighty United States has a terrible legacy.”

Delegate Tom Chee highlighted the continuing efforts by the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, which is a five-year study to provide the first Navajo Nation-wide documentation of the association between uranium exposure, and birth outcomes and child development.

“It’s creating a picture of how our children were exposed to radiation,” Chee said adding his youngest child was born with a heart condition due to uranium exposure in Shiprock.

Also during the session, delegates passed legislation requesting $270,000 in supplemental funding from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance to restore fencing in the Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter.

The council tabled legislation seeking $832,698 in supplemental funding to rebuild 27 homes and structures destroyed by the Assayii Lake Fire.

Delegate Norman M. Begay, the bill’s cosponsor, asked delegates to table the bill until Wednesday after questions were made about the two-thirds vote requirement to approve the measure.

The bill also generated a comment from Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who requested a report about the cause of the 2014 fire on the Ch’ooshgai Mountains.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-546-4636.