More than 500 mines exist in six regions across nation

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SHIPROCK — Work continues across the Navajo Nation to study and reach conclusions about the impact of uranium mining and processing on tribal land.

The Diné Uranium Remediation Advisory Commission received a report here on Thursday about ongoing work by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify and inspect abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.

In addition to evaluating the impact of those activities, the commission is charged with submitting recommendations for policies, laws and regulations to tribal leaders.

Approximately 30 million tons of uranium ore was mined on the reservation during the Cold War. The activity left 523 abandoned mines, according to the EPA.

Linda Reeves is a remedial project manager with the Tribal Lands Cleanup Section for the EPA Region 9. She provided an overview Thursday of work the agency is completing to address the 523 abandoned mines in six regions on the Navajo Nation.

During the last 10 years, the EPA has conducted initial screenings, which identifies contamination levels, for all the mines, and the agency has secured approximately $1.7 billion to begin the cleanup process at 219 mines.

In collaboration with the Navajo Nation Superfund Program, more than 1,100 homes have been assessed for exposure levels to mine waste.

Fifty of the 1,100 homes were identified as posing risk to the individuals occupying the structures, and remediation work has been completed for each one, varying from the construction of new housing to providing financial compensation to residents.

Water contamination and quality remains an issue for some community members, and efforts to address that concern have led the EPA and the Indian Health Service to extend pipelines that deliver water to 3,800 homes.

The northern region of abandoned uranium mines consists of 121 mines found in the Cove, Lukachukai, Red Valley, Sweetwater and Teec Nos Pos chapters.

While there are no abandoned mines in Shiprock, there is a uranium mill and a transfer site where uranium ore was stored before delivery to the mill. The transfer site is one of the properties the EPA is investigating, Reeves said.

The EPA also supports projects started by Navajo Technical University and Diné College, she said.

Diné College received a $429,467 grant from the agency to begin a study to examine the potential impact of abandoned uranium mines on livestock in Cove, Arizona.

In a Sept. 10 press release from the EPA, it was announced the tribal college will partner with Northern Arizona University and the University of New Mexico on the study and risk assessment.

Students and professors from the three institutions will assist EPA scientists with sampling for heavy metals and radioactive nuclides in livestock, including sheep, cattle and horses, the release states.

The federal and tribal personnel who attended Thursday's meeting also heard comments from community members about the impact of uranium mining on health and the environment.

Perry Charley, the northern regional representative on the commission, said the comments are important because those residents live with the aftermath of mining.

"We do require and look to you for full cleanup of the mess they left behind," Charley said.

Nona Baheshone, the commission's executive director, said the group's first meeting was in January, and at least one meeting has been conducted in each of the six abandoned uranium mining regions.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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