Settlement reached to clean up uranium mines

The $600 million settlement addresses the cleanup of 94 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation

Noel Lyn Smith
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., tours a former uranium mine in the Red Valley Chapter in Arizona on Oct. 2, 2015.

FARMINGTON — A settlement for more than $600 million has been reached between the United States, the Navajo Nation and two subsidiaries of Freeport-McMoRan Inc. to address the cleanup of 94 abandoned uranium mines.

The announcement was made this week in a press release from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Eric Kinneberg, spokesman for Freeport-McMoRan, said in a statement to The Daily Times that the decree is the culmination of an extensive negotiating process that started years ago between the company, the EPA and the Justice Department.

"It will allow all parties to cooperatively address an environmental issue that has long been an important concern to the Navajo people and, furthermore, will provide job opportunities for members of the Navajo Nation for environmental investigation and remediation work at 94 former uranium mine sites," Kinneberg said.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., talks on Oct. 2, 2015, with Gilbert Dayzie, a civil engineer with the Shiprock Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, while touring a former uranium mine in the Red Valley Chapter in Arizona.

The EPA release states that under the settlement, Cyrus Amax and Western Nuclear, both Freeport-McMoRan subsidiaries, have agreed to perform removal site evaluations, engineering evaluations and cost analyses.

In return, the U.S. has agreed to place $335 million into a trust account to help fund the cleanup.

The EPA will collaborate with the tribe’s environmental agency to oversee the work, the release states.

Of the 94 mines, 77 are mines under Freeport-McMoRan and 17 are nearby mines the company agreed to clean up, according to a press release issued Thursday by the Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President.

The settlement resolves the claims by the U.S. against Cyprus Amax and Western Nuclear and claims by the tribe against the U.S. and the two entities.

It also resolves claims by both companies against the U.S., the release states.

At right, Melvin H. Yazzie, senior reclamation specialist with the Navajo Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, speaks on Oct. 2, 2015, with Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., as he uses a Geiger counter at a former uranium mine in the Red Valley Chapter in Arizona.

The proposed consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by a federal court, the release from the EPA states.

As of Friday, the comment period was yet to be scheduled.

Information about the public comment period, including how to submit a comment, is available at

"We appreciate the efforts of mining companies like Freeport that are coming forth to clean up the uranium contamination that they have caused on the Navajo Nation," said Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye in the release from his office.

According to the EPA, a number of private entities mined about 30 million tons of uranium ore on or near the Navajo Nation between 1994 and 1986.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.