5/31/2011 Gallup Independent: Section 9 A Mystery Little Known About Abandoned Uranium Operation in Cameron

5/27/2011 Gallup Independent Section 9 a mystery: Little known about abandoned uranium operation in Cameron By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau: TUBA CITY – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to determine exactly what kind of uranium operation was conducted at the “Section 9 Lease” site in Cameron near the banks of the Little Colorado River. EPA’s contractor, Weston Solutions, identified the site as a former mill, but that has not been confirmed, according to Clancy Tenley of US. EPA Region 9’s Superfund Division. What Weston did learn during a preliminary assessment last November is that there are three locations within Section 9 where radiation was detected at 880,000 counts per minute, 969,000 counts per minute, and more than 1 million counts per minute – far above levels considered safe. “A million counts per minute is high. I believe we have seen that at some other mines, but not very many though,” Tenley said. “We’re certainly taking this seriously.”

Cameron resident Larry Gordy and the grassroots group Forgotten People first expressed concern to EPA about the mill site and EPA sent Weston scientists out to conduct a preliminary screen. The site is believed to be located on state of Arizona land in close proximity to the Navajo Nation border.

There are 520 abandoned uranium mine sites being assessed on the Navajo Nation as part of the federally mandated Five-Year Plan begun in 2007. Tenley said that if the Section 9 site does rise to the top in the ranking of priority sites, “then our next step would be to conduct a very detailed assessment.” So far, only a partial scan has been done.

“We’re on track to get all the mines assessed and to identify those that require more immediate action,” he said. “Those in this area do have indicators that we may want to look at them in more detail soon. It’s close to the Little Colorado River, and there was a high count-per-minute reading.”

The site could be incorporated with the Five-Year Plan, he said. “What’s Indian land and what’s not varies from area to area, so the reservation boundary itself sometimes doesn’t mean that the land is not used by the tribe. In this case, where it appears that a portion of the site may be on state land, we’re conferring with our counterparts at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, and we’ll determine in consultation with them and the Navajo Nation which agency takes action.”

There have not yet been any determinations made on responsible parties. According to Weston’s findings, historical documents showed the operators as Rare Metals Corp. in 1957, C.L. Rankin from 1958 to 1959, and Murchison Ventures from 1959 to 1960. Historical documents for the nearby New Liba Group mine claim, which consists of two sites – one with Western Nuclear Inc. markers – showed the operators as Shooting Star Uranium in 1955, C.S. Black in 1956, and L.L. Travis from 1959 to 1960.

The Section 9 Lease was just one of several topics discussed earlier this month at a public meeting conducted by U.S. and Navajo Nation EPA on abandoned uranium mines in Western Navajo Agency. More than 100 people turned out at the Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites in Tuba City for an update on mine cleanup activities, contaminated structures and water.

Ron Milford of Fort Defiance, who attended the meeting, said EPA explained how they have the authority to go after violators to ensure hazards are cleaned up.

“I expressed my concern about the recently approved Northeastern Arizona water rights agreement,” Milford said, and read to EPA, verbatim, Section 14 of the agreement, which states that Navajo “shall execute a waiver and release of any claims” against the state or any agency or political subdivision of the state, the Hopi Tribe, or any other person, entity, corporation or municipal corporation under federal, state or other law for all past and present claims for injury to water rights and injury to water quality for Navajo lands arising from time immemorial through the Little Colorado River enforceability date.

“I expressed concern that these corporate violators might use this clause and enforceability date to tell U.S. EPA and Navajo Nation EPA that they don’t have to clean up their mess because they are protected by the waiver in the agreement,” Milford said. “They were confounded, to say the least. They had no answer for my concern, and said they had to go to their lawyers for this answer. It just appears to me there is much more written into the agreement to protect outside entities against prosecution,” he said.

Marsha Monestersky of Forgotten People said the water rights settlement defines Little Colorado River water as drinking water, and expressed concern because people are drinking the water. The Little Colorado River flows past Black Falls where federal and tribal agencies have implemented a water hauling program to bring safe drinking water to residents who had been relying on uranium- and arsenic-contaminated water sources.

Debbie Schechter, chief of U.S. EPA’s Brownfields & Site Assessment Section, said EPA has not sampled the Little Colorado River for contamination. “We know that that’s a concern and we will follow up on that. … We also have other sites that we’ve looked at on other parts of the Navajo Nation that are going to be a high priority as well.”

Schechter said the main purpose of the Tuba City meeting was to get input and hear concerns of people who live around the mines and the water sources that EPA has looked at. EPA also wanted to know whether local residents had more information about problem sites, knew of any sites that might have been missed, or potentially contaminated structures built from mine waste.

Though the Five-Year Plan targets 520 abandoned uranium mines, in actuality, that number takes in more than 1,000 mine features. “Within each mining claim there can be a few sites,” EPA’s Svetlana Zenkin said. She cited the Charles Huskon No. 3 mine as an example. Though only one claim, the mine has four sites. “If we count each site, the total number of these sites ends up being more than that (520).”

Monestersky noted during the meeting that according to EPA’s own count, there are 1,300 actual sites. Schechter said that number is based on mine features. “There’s different ways of counting,” she explained. “We’re not trying to minimize the number of mines; this is just how we counted. We’re still trying to look at everything.”

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