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Four Corners Free Press: Living with the legacy of uranium on the Navajo Nation

Four Corners Free Press: Living with the legacy of uranium on the Navajo Nation By Sonja Horoshko: Box Springs, Ariz., is cut off by the Little Colorado River from access to any paved roads or the conveniences of groceries, gas stations, banks, electricity and power, not to mention jobs and economic development. But the community’s willingness to solve its own problems is gaining it recognition as one of the most pro-active areas on the Navajo Nation. Surrounding the tiny hamlet is the country in the Navajo Nation Western Agency referred to by some as “Cancer Alley” – the heart of leetsoii, the uranium belt stretching through the Navajo Nation to the Four Corners region.

It is a place where unregulated water sources are poisoned with contaminants left behind by the un-remediated abandoned mining operations begun in the mid-1940s to fuel the Atomic Energy Commission and the Cold War.

As if the lack of safe, potable water isn’t problem enough, Box Springs, a community of less than 150, is 30 miles from Leupp, Ariz., the nearest town — a drive that often takes an hour. Harsh winter weather and the crenellated, pitched washboard of the partially graveled road add stress to the difficult, typically wind-whipped trip to haul drinking water twice a week for consumption and hygiene. The necessity is the dominant concern for all families living there.

On a mid-April Friday morning, the Tahonnie family opened their home to another community meeting of their grassroots organization, The Forgotten Navajo People, to hear from the Navajo Department of Water Resources about plans for a waterdelivery schedule beginning that day and to welcome the first 4,000-gallon water truck to the area.

“It is a blessing today, “said Rolanda Tahonnie. “A lot of progress has been made here, so it’s a beautiful day. Two years our water barrel has been completely empty and now it’s full.”

Thirty percent of Navajo families living on the reservation haul drinking water, compared to 1 percent of the U.S. population nationwide. With gas prices exceeding $3.80 per gallon and the expense of wear and tear on the vehicle, the price tag for Navajo consumers is more than 10 times the cost of water for a typical household in Phoenix, one of many Arizona metropolises fed by the water found beneath the reservation and transported through it to cities lying south of the reservation boundaries in Arizona.

The new water truck was bought with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant awarded to Indian Health Services, providing the Navajo Department of Water Resources funding for a three-year Safe Drinking Water Hauling Feasibility Study and Pilot Project.

Its huge shiny white hulk rumbled over the hill into the clearing that served as a casual parking area filled with pick-ups and trailers loaded with empty water containers. Following close behind was another truck hauling a new trailer and two 200-gallon tanks to be used by the residents there to move their personal water from the Tahonnie watering point and storage tank to homes further out in the community. Tó … Tó … Tó … (drip, drip, drip)

“Today is a great day,” said Forgotten People program director Marsha Monestersky. “Box Springs and the Forgotten People have become the heart of the Navajo reservation. It is the beginning.”

The program is a model that can work in all communities tucked into remote locations where water is scarce and roads are rough. “We are working with Department of Water Resources to schedule regular delivery points here in the Western Agency chapters, including Canyon Diablo, Gray Mountain and Cameron and then Coal Mine,” Monestersky said.

“It is a model water-hauling project,” added the director of DWR, Najam Tajiq. But it was a tough crowd gathered in the room: the local people, the real experts at hauling water. They directed their concerns to him about the lasting reliability of the program.

Benson Willie told Tajiq that they will need to strengthen the one bridge crossing a small arroyo on the road. It was not built to withstand repeated trips carrying the weight of a 4,000-gallon water truck and, he said, “The spigot on the Tolani Lake storage tank has been broken for months. We aren’t allowed to fix it, even though it’s a job any high-school student could do. We’ve been told it’s under warranty and it’s NTUA’s responsiblility.” NTUA is the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

Adding to the challenge is the anticipated heavy maintenance and repair of the truck because of the ongoing Navajo Department of Roads maintenance issues.

In their mission statement, the Forgotten Navajo People write that they are dedicated to the rebuilding of the communities using a participatory methodology that strives to empower the local communities and ensures that they own and control their sustainable development agendas.

At the meeting, Don Yellowman, president of the group, explained progress at the two additional test-well projects upstream on the Little Colorado at Black Falls Crossing and near Leupp. If the water found there is potable and palatable, it will be piped through 12.4 miles of new waterline extensions to 155 homes in the area of concern.

Someday the water will be here, he told the group. “Nine homes now have bathroom additions and fixtures plumbed and ready for the water when it comes, and they were built by sharing each other’s labors, organizing the people’s teamwork in a traditional Diné way with Black Falls Project Manager Ronald Tahonnie.”

Blue gold

By 2007, the United Nations had announced two human-rights-to-water declarations. The first, issued in 2002, said, “The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, affordable, physically accessible, safe and acceptable water for personal and domestic uses.” It requires governments to adopt national strategies and plans of action which will allow them to “move expeditiously and effectively towards the full realization of the right to water.”

But in 2007 the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights expanded the statement to include in the definition, “the right to equal and non-discriminatory access to a sufficient amount of safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses. . .” ensuring a sufficient amount of water that is “good quality, is affordable for all and can be collected within a reasonable distance from a person’s home.”

The description fit the needs of Navajo people throughout the reservation. FNP began to work on a submission to the U.N. that would eventually lead to a 2010 historic declaration and help from its own central government in Window Rock, and a Navajo Commission on Emergency Management “Declaration of Public Health State of Emergency” for Black Falls/Box Springs/ Grand Falls.

Contamination in the water sources is attributable to uranium-mining and other natural-resources mining practices that began in the mid-1940s. Monestersky said, “The people here have been drinking contaminated water from unregulated livestock sources and springs for more than 40 years. This was our opportunity to address the issue on a global scale, to declare a humanrights emergency.” The case they submitted contained comments from interviews of Diné people denied access to water due to uranium contamination throughout the Navajo Nation, including their neighborhoods in Grey Mountain, Tuba City, Moenkopi and the New Lands.

Currently, the Diné are threatened by new uranium mining just outside their borders, despite a ban on such mining within the Navajo Nation, issued in 2005 by former president Joe Shirley, Jr. Adverse health effects continue, according to the stories in the document prepared by the Forgotten Navajo People, as a result of more than 1,100 un-reclaimed uranium sites throughout the Navajo Nation. The document includes graphic testament to conditions inflicted on the people living around Peabody Coal Company mining operations who are denied access to safe drinking water due to destruction, degradation and diminution of their water sources.

The report also includes a statement alleging that, “The Diné live on lands the U.S. Department of Energy calls a ‘National Sacrifice Area’.”

Response to the submission strengthened relationships with partners already work- ing on the cataclysmic environmental and health disaster. The U.S. EPA Superfund, Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Energy, Navajo Nation EPA, Navajo Abandoned Mines, DWR, and others, working on remediation and attribution of responsibility, have activated programs addressing the issues since the mid-1990s.

In 2006, Judy Pasternack, journalist and author of “Yellow Dirt,” began publishing excerpts from her work-in-progress in the Los Angeles Times.

The series painted a stark picture of national disgrace and neglect and the continuing presence of radioactive contamination in the Navajos’ “drinking supplies, in their walls and floors, playgrounds, bread ovens, in their churches, and even in their garbage dumps. And they are still dying.”

Hope fueled the work of the grassroots organizations. The Forgotten Navajo People began to feel remembered. They knew best what was needed in their own community and assumed the role of experts working toward solutions.

Ticking meters

But while the picture may have improved for Box Springs, at least in regard to drinking water, the dark legacy of uraniummining hangs over the Navajo Nation like a specter.

A month after the water-hauling meeting, the U.S. EPA announced a Superfund meeting in Tuba City on the Abandoned Uranium Mines project in the Western Agency. Nearly 200 people representing all the communities in the Western Agency crowded the conference room on May 14 with members of several Navajo grassroots environmental-justice and natural-resources organizations, including the Forgotten Navajo People.

Svetlana Zenkin, site assessment manager with EPA Region 9’s Superfund Division, explained the mine screening that provided for the initial evaluation of 520 sites found by 2000. During the first four years of a five-year plan of action, 383 of the sites throughout the reservation have been screened in an initial evaluation.

Sites under investigation in the Western Agency chapters include mines, transfer stations, homes and outbuilding structures, hogans, schools, water sources, tailing piles, landfills, barrow ditches, access roads and the Rare Metals mill site east of Tuba City. All 126 were identified in the original study found in the Abandoned Mines 2000 Atlas. The initial investigation of these was to be completed by the end of May, yielding a prioritized list identifying sites requiring additional investigation.

“Our main goal was to gauge the level of interest in the region, educate the people about our progress and to locate what sites people come into contact with that we didn’t know about,” said Zenkin.

The biggest surprise of the meeting was the contamination level discovered for a site east of the Cameron Chapter House on the west side of the Little Colorado River, not far from Box Springs.

According to Alex Grubbs, a representative of Weston Solutions, the Superfund contract environmental consultants for the project, “The meter maxed out three times … at a million,” which is an actual reading of 1,000 radiation counts per minute— a relative measure of radiation to the surrounding background area. Background radiation is typically between 5 and 60 cpm, rarely exceeding 100 cpm.

Although people in the community believe the site may have been a transfer station for ore, Zenkins said, “We hesitate to label the site until we have finished the intensive study required of such a screen. It has definitely moved to the top of the priority list.”

“Superfund” is a retroactive liability law, not a monetary fund. It has the authority to identify and locate hazardous sites and require the responsible party to fund the clean-up — even if it is a government entity such as the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (former Atomic Energy Commission).

Contaminated water is the highest-priority threat because it is the most direct internal contaminant. Today, the subject of safe, clean water is also a hotly contested issue in the Northeastern Arizona Indian Water Rights Settlement.

In a special session in November 2010, the 21st Navajo Nation Council voted 51-24 to pass legislation supporting the settlement.

Ron Millford, a concerned Navajo citizen and opponent of the settlement, asked Superfund project manager Debbie Schechter for a clarification of authority. “Does the EPA Superfund have authority over waivers contained in the settlement?” According to Millford, “The waiver releases all claims against the state or corporations — including Arizona Power Service and Peabody Coal, that may pollute the environment,” including violations of the Clean Water Act.

Because the Superfund can go after any responsible party, it seems logical that it would have authority over such a waiver.

Schechter told Millford, “It is a question that we will ask the EPA lawyers, and get an answer for you on this.” At the time of this writing, Millford had not heard a response from the lawyers.

Green dust

Afternoon breakout groups at the May 14 meeting gave citizens an opportunity to tell their stories directly to the Superfund project managers. Of great concern was potential future contamination from possible Grand Canyon uranium-mining.

A single-parenting father of two young boys said, “I teach my sons to clean up after themselves, to be responsible. What will they think when they learn about the mining residue left behind by the corporations at these natural-resources operations?”

He added that the dust is everywhere and he’s concerned for his children who may play in contaminated soil picked up and blowing in the wind. Another young man called its presence in the windstorms, “unavoidable green dust,” and another woman added that children continue risk exposure when they put it in their mouths. “It tastes like rock candy,” she said.

Sarana Riggs, a young woman living in Tuba City, said she is very concerned about “the potential 50 trucks a day transporting uranium ore from the Grand Canyon through Cameron and Tuba City, Monument Valley and the Utah strip of Navajo Nation to the mill in Blanding, Utah.”

“What is the level of our awareness?” she asked. “What education can we be doing for our communities to prevent a repeat of this contamination and its aftereffects?”

Those answers remain unclear.

7/15/2011 Gallup Independent: Western Navajo Pipeline dropped from water rights talks

7/15/2011 Gallup Independent: Western Navajo Pipeline dropped from water rights talks By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau: WINDOW ROCK – If the Navajo Nation wants the Western Navajo Pipeline it’s going to have to build it, at least as the situation now stands. The project is no longer part of the proposed Northeastern Arizona Indian Water Rights Settlement. Stanley Pollack, Navajo water rights attorney, and the Navajo Water Rights Commission gave the Nabiki’yati’ Committee an update Tuesday evening on water rights settlements in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, as well as near-miss litigation with the city of Flagstaff over water drilling on the city’s Red Gap Ranch. Pollack said he informed the Navajo Nation Council in May that the proposed Northeastern Arizona settlement approved last November by the 21st Council was no longer under consideration because Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, who heads the Arizona congressional delegation, didn’t think the settlement could get through the current Congress.

On March 23, Kyl advised the settlement parties to come up with a proposal that did not include the costly Western Navajo Pipeline, which would bring “liquid gold” to water-starved portions of the Nation in Western Navajo Agency.

“I immediately told the senator that without the Western Navajo Pipeline that the Navajo Nation was not willing to engage in any discussions concerning settlement of its Colorado River water rights. So we basically took the Colorado River issues off the table once Congress took the Western Navajo Pipeline off the table,” Pollack said.

Lack of support for the Western Navajo project was not unanticipated, however, and as a result, “we have been involved in trying to wrap up a settlement of just the Little Colorado River and not the Colorado River,” he said. Hopi stood to gain nothing out of the Little Colorado River settlement because there were no projects for the Hopis involved, so they were not part of the deal, he added.

Kyl set a June 3 deadline for the parties to put together a settlement he could introduce this month in Congress. On June 3, attorneys for parties to the settlement discussions entered into an agreement “basically agreeing to what we would call a Little Colorado River settlement,” Pollack said. That settlement was forwarded to Kyl’s office and the Department of the Interior, where it is now under review.

“If we get to the point that there is a settlement that the administration and Congress believe has legs, can move forward, has some chance of being approved by the next Congress, at that point in time we will come back and give you more details on the settlement and ask for your approval,” he said.

“But we don’t think there’s any point of going through another process of approving a settlement that we just simply don’t have the go-ahead from either the congressional delegation or the administration to move forward in Congress.”

Delegate Leonard Tsosie said what bothers him is that Kyl is calling the shots. “I don’t think that the agreement that the Council approved should be characterized as a non-valid consideration.” He asked the Water Rights Commission to convene at least one meeting to explain to the Navajo people the status of the Western pipeline. “I think if this is no longer a valid consideration, then we need to be honest with the people and tell them that – in Navajo language.”

He also suggested the Commission begin talking with the Obama administration to try to promote the pipeline.

“Sen. Kyl is going to be gone in less than a year. So be it. Let him go to whatever burned-out place near Walla where I suppose he has a cabin. But for the Navajo people, life goes on. We still need water, with or without Sen. Kyl. … Not showing sympathy for basic human need, to just kind of turn a blind eye to that really bothers me to. I would like to think that he has a heart.”

Tsosie said Hopi also got off without approving the lease. “Many of the Navajo persons were praising them for doing that while the rest of us were getting close to having our effigies burned. Hopi has made off clean here. … I think in the future this Council ought to consider whether we truly need Hopi approval or not. I’ve always said to put the spigot at the borderline and let them develop their own water line if they so care to do so.”

Lorenzo Curley took issue with the “sacred cow” portion of the negotiations – the Colorado River and Navajo Generating Station.

“As we all know, Navajo Generating Station supplies 90 percent of the water to Phoenix and Tucson area, and they need this. That’s why they’re ensuring that the generating station is considered part of this agreement. We’re allowing that sacred cow to be part of this agreement. Why don’t we just take it off the table? They’ve done that with the Colorado River and the Western pipeline. They’ve taken our sacred cow off; let’s take theirs off,” he said.

Alton Shepherd said Curley brought forth a good analysis of the process. “I did have my reservations on what was being agreed,” he said.

Katherine Benally told the committee that as much as they don’t like what has transpired, they can’t blame Pollack and the Water Rights Commission. “It’s a decision Sen. Kyl made. … That was his position and it’s sort of the position in Washington, D.C., right now due to the deficit or the money crunch everybody is in. So, what’s the solution?

“Every time we negotiate something, we sacrifice. Maybe land, maybe water, maybe a little bit of our sovereignty, maybe our water rights. But if we put our money where our mouth is, we don’t sacrifice anything.”

Benally said the main cost is to bring the water up from the canyon at Lees Ferry. She referred to some Oriental investors who recently visited Navajo. “’Let us build it for you,’ they said. I would ask the Water Rights Commission to take a look at that. At least sit down with them and have a dialog and report back. See what transpires.”

Pollack said there appeared to be a couple common themes of frustration and perhaps even anger over what has happened with the Western pipeline. “There is no question that the Navajo people in the Western Agency need water. Once you are west of the Echo Cliffs, there is no groundwater, there is no surface water. That is why the Western Navajo Pipeline has always been the backbone of any Colorado River discussions that we have had.”

But there is really no point in pushing the pipeline in its current form, he said. “There’s no place to go with it. The Obama administration does not support it. Congress doesn’t support it. Look, these people are talking about cutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education, health benefits for the American people. They’re trying to cut back. They’re trying not to spend more money.”

Meanwhile, the Nation’s Water Management Branch is building the Western Navajo Pipeline “one piece at a time,” Pollack said. Navajo technical staff is working with Indian Health Service and Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to get drinking water to the people in Western Navajo.

“There is a small pipeline in the ground that goes almost all the way to Cameron. There is about a six mile gap that we have not been able to get funding for,” he said, because it doesn’t meet the criteria. Approximately $986,000 is needed.

“One of the things that we would like the Council to consider is pitching in and helping to finish that pipeline.” Once it is completed, he said, “you will actually have a small version of the Western Navajo Pipeline.”

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.”