Who Benefits and Who Pays the Price? Gallup Independent: A radioactive waste dump in Gallup’s back yard?

A radioactive waste dump in Gallup’s back yard? By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent, 1/23/2011 CHURCHROCK – If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and General Electric prevail over the wishes of the Red Water Pond Road Community, Gallup will have a radioactive waste dump right next door at the former United Nuclear Corp. Mill site. Clancy Tenley of the EPA Region 9 Superfund program told community residents and stakeholders Thursday evening that it is EPA’s goal to take the radium-contaminated soils from Northeast Churchrock and Quivira mines and bury them in “one well-designed facility that would protect everybody” at the UNC Superfund site now owned by General Electric.

But that’s just two mines. In order to clean up the other 518 abandoned uranium mines left over from the Cold War era, the Navajo Nation is going to have to sort through what to do with those wastes, Tenley said. “It’s a huge issue. Those are not decisions that can be made from Washington, D.C. Those are Navajo decisions about Navajo land.”

Siting a permanent radioactive waste disposal facility takes 20 to 25 years, he said. “I want to make sure that we keep moving forward on Northeast Churchrock on something that is implementable. That’s always been our goal here – to get it cleaned up.”

Teddy Nez of the Red Water Pond Road Community Association distributed a list of eight objectives, including conducting a rigorous study of possible sites within 100 miles of the Navajo Nation for permanent disposal of uranium mine wastes, including Fort Wingate. Tenley said EPA’s Cynthia Webmore looked at seven existing sites within a 100-mile radius in New Mexico for the Northeast Churchrock waste, but the bottom line is they didn’t find any site that was suitable. Four already had been closed, Ambrosia Lake will be closed next year, and the only other one is the former Homestake Mill in Milan.

“That needs a lot of work. It’s not really an ideal place to add a lot more material,” Webmore said. So their best idea is to create a newly licensed facility at the UNC site.

Community resident Larry King said Thursday was the first time he had heard anything about a 100-mile radius and that the community is strongly opposed to a new repository at the UNC site.

“This community needs to heal,” he said, adding that they need to move the waste out of the community, not create a new site. In addition, the tailings pile at the UNC Mill is not lined. “If that’s one of the sites being looked at to create another dump site, how are you going to put in a liner? Are you going to dig up the old waste piles? I don’t think that should even be considered.”

Tenley said every place they might take the waste has challenges. The Navajo Nation has said they cannot leave it at the Northeast Churchrock Mine, so EPA has agreed to clean up the site for unrestricted use. EPA also looked at trucking the waste to Idaho, but their analysis predicted an unacceptable 38 traffic deaths during the years of cleanup. “Also if we were to try to order General Electric to do that, they would refuse and we could be tied up in court for years, and the cost of doing it is so high that we don’t even have the money to do that if they would refuse to do it,” he said.

“The UNC site has its challenges,” he said, noting that local resident Scotty Begay had pointed out correctly over a year ago that there was debris buried at the mill site. He said GE will dig 27 test pits to look for it. “The last thing in the world we would ever want is anything like 1979 with settling and spilling. So we have to consider that.”

Begay said the community already had discussed and agreed that they do not want the wastes moved to the UNC site. “I know what’s in there. I put contaminants in there. We buried chemicals in the ground,” not only at that tailings site, but outside the fence, he said. “We just talk in circles. We’re talking about tailings again. Just what is it that GE is going to do as far as removal of all this waste? Where do they stand on this?”

Randy McAlister of GE told the community, “Our overall objective out here is to clean up, and we would rather not wait 20 years to get started. It’s not that we want to rush any one decision, but we would like to get going.”

He said there are some things that they would like to put on the table to help the community and the Navajo Nation. One is to put Navajos to work cleaning up the radioactive wastes. “For any cleanup we would give preference to trained Navajo. We would also provide some additional safety training. … We would like to use as many construction folks as we can. We think that would be a pretty big number of people for a number of years. I want you to think about that.”

He said GE also is prepared to offer the Nation a perpetual scholarship. One Navajo student a year would receive a four-year scholarship at either the University of New Mexico or Arizona State University.

Nez and moderator Philmer Bluehouse had mentioned during a previous meeting that the community association wants four hogans for traditional healing ceremonies and a muti-purpose community center for meetings and other activities. McAlister said GE would be willing to provide materials for the hogans if the community would do the construction.

As far as a community center, he said, there is a stand-alone office building at “ground zero,” or Northeast Churchrock Mine, that might possibly serve in the interim. “It would need to be dusted out pretty good, but that’s a possibility of space that could be provided to the community for meetings and such.”

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