Tag Archives: Navajo Epa

8/30/3011 Gallup Independent: Cleaning up the Skyline: 519 abandoned uranium mine sites on Navajo left to go

8/30/3011 Gallup Independent: Cleaning up the Skyline: 519 abandoned uranium mine sites on Navajo left to go By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau: MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah – In 1951, the Navajo Tribal Council sent a proposal to Washington that would permit Navajos to lease their lands to whites and also make it easier for them to obtain prospecting permits. Since exploration began in 1942, the mining business in Monument Valley had contributed $170,000 in royalties to tribal coffers. Uranium ore was raising the standard of living. Across the valley, uranium mines sprang up much like the red sandstone rocks that erupted from the desert floor. Unsuspecting Navajos took to the rocks with picks and shovels, little knowing that the uranium and vanadium gleaned from the yellow outcrops of carnotite would leave permanent scars on the landscape and the people.

At Skyline Mine on Oljato Mesa, 5,794 feet above sea level, a gondola running along a steel cable was used to transport ore from atop the mesa to the “transloading” area below, where it was placed in trucks and hauled to a mill for processing.

“The miners would ride up in the bucket back in the day,” according to Jason Musante, federal on-scene coordinator for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Emergency Response Section. Now, all that remains of the mine that inspired dreams of sky-high wealth is about 30,000 cubic yards of radium-contaminated soil which EPA is in charge of removing.

During the 1990s, portions of the Skyline Mine were closed by the Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Land program, which focused on removing immediate physical hazards, consolidating loose mine waste and capping it with clean fill dirt. But due to the steep terrain, some wastes at the eastern edge of the mesa and at the bottom were not removed.

Skyline is the first abandoned uranium mine U.S. EPA will complete cleanup at under a five-year inter-agency plan to address the Cold War legacy of uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation. The federal agency is working with Navajo EPA to prioritize and clean up the highest-risk abandoned uranium mines from among 520 sites.

Eugene Esplain, a health physicist with Navajo EPA’s Superfund program, said that between 1995 and 2000 they screened the Skyline Mine site after talking to local resident Elsie Begay – a central figure in the award-winning documentary, “The Return of Navajo Boy.”

Esplain and co-workers walked from the foot of the mesa to the top, assessing the contamination. “A little over a thousand feet we got high readings, so we kept going up the slope and the readings got more elevated the higher we went. This one went as high as 10 times background,” he said.

Esplain suffered a fall and ended up having knee surgery, but they were able to grade the site. “We didn’t do any characterization work up there. We knew that we didn’t have the tools or manpower to do this work. We reported it to our supervisor as such, and that we should ask U.S. EPA to take the lead on this one,” he said.

The $7 million project was initiated by U.S. EPA in August 2009 and on March 28 of this year they mobilized to come out and begin work on the disposal cell on top of the mesa.

About 10,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil were removed from the arroyo, and approximately 5,000 cubic yards each from the transloading area and the “talus slope,” a pile of radioactive waste rock and ore that either was pushed over the upper slope or fell from the top of the mesa. An estimated 10,000 cubic yards more were removed from the top of the mesa. A gray-green stain extends down the face of the cliff, a visual reminder of the years of mining activity.

All contaminated soils on the valley floor have been stockpiled into one huge red pile, which is being whittled away 4 cubic yards at a time using a modern version of the “skyline.” The top cable, or skyline, runs from a piece of heavy equipment on the mesa to another piece of heavy equipment below. A second line, called a haul-back line, pulls the hopper up and down the cliff.

As soon as the bucket has landed, a front-end loader loads it with one straight-up bucketful from the stockpile of soil, then the skyline goes up and transports the hopper to the top, where it drops its load into a truck and then returns to the valley floor, Musante said. The cycle takes about 4-1/2 minutes. When full, the truck deposits the soil into the disposal cell a short distance away.

Air monitors are triangulated around the housing area at the foot of the mesa, where five families reside, with another set of monitors surrounding the work area on the cliff. The contaminated soils are wet and mixed to prevent the dust from blowing around. “Sometimes we also do active dust suppression where we’ve got like a fog of water spraying in the air to knock out the dust particles that are created,” he said.

“We have really good confidence that there’s not an excess exposure being created by our work activities for residents nearby. Based on two months worth of data, families were told they could move back if they wanted. Two families returned and others are expected to begin moving back Tuesday. The nearly six-month project is expected to be done by Labor Day.

On the upper slope at the edge of the mesa, they removed contaminated material 10 to 15 feet deep. “We got about 90 percent of what was there, but with the technique we’re using out here and that bucket, once it hits those large cobbles, it can’t get the small stuff underneath, so there is a little bit of residual material,” he said. “But I think the main point is we were able to remove a significant quantity of the material that was going to continue to fall down over the side.”

Given the dangerous terrain, they have been very fortunate, with only one freak accident. “When we were excavating this upper slope area with the dredge bucket, for what appears to be quality control or a failure in the cable itself, the haul-back cable snapped while the dredge bucket unit was at the very top,” Musante said. “Then the operator-activated brake failed to engage, the safety brake wasn’t enough to stop the unit, and the warning horn didn’t go off.

“It was kind of ‘the system failed as it was designed’ and the dredge bucket traveled all the way down to the anchor, flew off and flew back about 80 feet. The one thing I can say is that while that was a completely random action that no one could have predicted – and it wasn’t for lack of safety procedures – we had an exclusion area so that nobody was standing right behind there when that did happen.” The incident is under investigation.

Mary Helen Begay, Elsie’s daughter-in-law, has been documenting the cleanup in “webisodes,” which she presented last week at the 2011 Tribal Lands and Environment Forum in Green Bay, Wisc. Begay attended the forum along with Jeff Spitz, co-producer of “The Return of Navajo Boy.”

She said that at one of the screenings she met a woman, originally from Cameron, who wanted to share her story. “She remembered drinking out of this well,” which in later years she found out was named after one of the uranium mines. “She lost several family members.”

Begay then told the audience how she lost her dad, several uncles, nieces and brothers-in-law to illnesses related to uranium. “I said right now I have an uncle who is dying from cancer. My uncle is in his last stage. He’s in his hospice stage. The cancer has spread across his lungs. All he’s waiting for is time for him to go. There’s nothing that can be done, so they’re just giving him painkillers.

“Not only that, I said, when you look at the movie again (Navajo Boy), you see a medicine man performing a healing ritual ceremony, the Wind Way. Many of our Navajo people have utilized medicine men out there. A lot have died, but some are still living but don’t have documents of their medical. They have nothing to prove that they have problems with breathing or any type of health issues,” she said, therefore, they can’t get federal compensation for radiation-related illnesses.

And then she shared with them the story about Skyline Mine. “The cleanup that’s being done right now, I thought they were doing a good job,” she said. But recently she was told that areas on the back side of the mine where prior reclamation efforts were done, have elevated readings. Though those areas are outside the scope of EPA’s emergency removal action at Skyline, she questions why they were not included in the cleanup.

“Do we need to fight for more money and say we need the rest of it cleaned up? What do we need to do?”

Addressing Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation

US EPA Pacific Southwest, Region 9 Serving: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Pacific Islands, Tribal Nations: Addressing Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation: The lands of the Navajo Nation include 27,000 square miles spread over three states in the Four Corners area. The unique geology of these lands makes them rich in uranium, a radioactive ore in high demand after the development of atomic power and weapons at the close of World War II in the 1940s. From 1944 to 1986, nearly four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. Many Navajo people worked the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity to the mines and mills.

Today the mines are closed, but a legacy of uranium contamination remains, including over 500 abandoned uranium mines (AUMs) as well as homes and drinking water sources with elevated levels of radiation. Potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.

EPA maintains a strong partnership with the Navajo Nation and, since 1994, the Superfund Program has provided technical assistance and funding to assess potentially contaminated sites and develop a response. In August 2007, the Superfund Program compiled a Comprehensive Database and Atlas with the most complete assessment to date of all known uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. Working with the Navajo Nation, EPA also used its Superfund authority to clean up four residential yards and one home next to the highest priority abandoned uranium mine, Northeast Church Rock Mine, at a cost of more than $2 million.

At the request of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in October 2007, EPA, along with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Indian Health Service (IHS) developed a coordinated Five-Year Plan to address uranium contamination in consultation with Navajo Nation EPA. EPA regularly reports back to the Committee and to the Navajo Nation on its progress (PDF) (2 pp, 489K) in implementing the Five-Year Plan. (The Progress Report was updated in August 2010 (PDF) (2 pp, 2.9M) .)

The Five-Year Plan is the first coordinated approach created by the five federal agencies. This landmark plan outlines a strategy for cleanup and details the cleanup process for the Navajo Nation over the next five years.

EPA is addressing the most urgent risks on the reservation — uranium contaminated water sources and structures. Approximately 30 percent of the Navajo population does not have access to a public drinking water system and may be using unregulated water sources with uranium contamination. EPA and the Navajo Nation EPA have launched an aggressive outreach campaign to inform residents of the dangers of consuming contaminated water.

EPA will also continue to use its Superfund authority to address contaminated structures. EPA has already assessed about 200 structures and yards and targeted at least 27 structures and ten yards for remediation as a precaution.

Over the course of the Five-year Plan, EPA will focus on the problems posed by abandoned uranium mines, completing a tiered assessment of over 500 mines and taking actions to address the highest priority mines. As mines that pose risks are discovered, EPA may use Superfund authorities, including the National Priorities List, enforcement against responsible parties, or emergency response to require cleanup. At the Northeast Church Rock Mine, the highest-risk mine on the Reservation, EPA is requiring the owner to conduct a cleanup that is protective of nearby residents. EPA is working with the community to ensure the remainder of the site is cleaned up.

Although the legacy of uranium mining is widespread and will take many years to address completely, the collaborative effort of EPA, other federal agencies and the Navajo Nation will bring an unprecedented level of support and protection for the people at risk from these sites. Much work remains to be done, and EPA is committed to working with the Navajo Nation to remove the most immediate contamination risks and to find permanent solutions to the remaining contamination on Navajo lands.

Related Information
Superfund Site Overview

Region 9 Tribal Program

Contact Information

Dana Barton
US EPA, SFD 6-3
75 Hawthorne St.
San Francisco, CA 94105
Telephone: (415) 972-3087
Toll Free 1(800) 231-3075
Fax (415) 947-3528

Lillie Lane (hozhoogo_nasha@yahoo.com)
Navajo Nation EPA
P.O. Box 339
Window Rock, Arizona 86515
928-871-6092

4/20/2011 Gallup Independent article: Delegate concerned about cleanup of Highway 160 site

Delegate concerned about cleanup of Highway 160 site, By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent, 4/20/2011, WINDOW ROCK – Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency has selected a contractor to begin cleanup of the “Highway 160 Site” in Tuba City and will host a Radiation Awareness Workshop next week at To’Nanees’Dizi Chapter House to educate the public, according to Navajo Nation Council Delegate Joshua Lavar Butler. “Area residents need to be reassured that the cleanup and transport of radioactive material is done in an effective and efficient manner without causing further harm to the surrounding area. During the summer it’s windy, and anyone downwind could be affected,” Butler, who represents To’Nanees’ Dizi, said.

“It is vitally important federal and tribal officials begin educating and notifying people of concerns for safety and activities associated with this cleanup. I will continue to keep our people informed and will urge the agencies involved to take all safety precautions to ensure it is done in a manner to protect the health of our people and of our environment,” he said.

The Radiation Awareness Workshop will be held 8 a.m.-5 p.m. April 27-28, with three sessions April 27 for the general public, and two more in-depth sessions April 28 for emergency and public safety personnel, according to Butler.

The Highway 160 Site is located about 5 miles east of Tuba City along Arizona Highway 160. It is directly north of the former Rare Metals uranium mill owned by El Paso Natural Gas and managed by U.S. Department of Energy’s Legacy Management.

According to an October 2010 statement of work, the Highway 160 site was discovered by Navajo EPA in 2003. The agency conducted radiological and soil analysis the following May and released a final report in September 2004. The site was found to have high radiological readings, including a finding of more than 1 million counts per minute.

In 2006 and 2007, Navajo EPA contracted William Walker of Walker & Associates, Inc., to conduct further site investigation. Walker found evidence that linked the contamination to Rare Metals, including ceramic tumblers and Normandy pebbles possibly used in the mill processing operation. Radiological levels ranged from 400 counts per minute to more than 10,000 counts per minute.

Analysis was performed on 47 soil samples and Walker released a final report in 2007 identifying radiological concerns that are affecting the immediate environment as well as health and safety concerns for humans, animals and plants. Groundwater at the Highway 160 site has not been characterized, according to Navajo EPA.

Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa, who lives in the Upper Village of Moenkopi, is concerned, according to Butler. The Highway 160 Site is in close proximity not only to Rare Metals – where DOE has been treating contaminated groundwater for nearly a decade – but also another site known as the Tuba City Open Dump, where radioactive contamination also was found.

“There is some radioactive contamination that is showing up in a plume that is coming off the Tuba City Open Dump,” Shingoitewa said. “The plume is also moving into the drinking water, so both the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation are working as partners very closely to make sure that the open dump site will be cleaned up.”

The Highway 160 Site is within the customary use area of a family who used the area to graze their livestock. In late 2007, El Paso provided further surveys of the site and confirmed the presence of buried debris up to 13 feet deep. El Paso fenced nearly 8 acres of the 16-acre site and applied a polymer cover to prevent windblown contamination.

Stephen B. Etsitty, who has been executive director of Navajo EPA since 2003 and was confirmed again Wednesday by Council, said they fought DOE for years for recognition of the site, and finally in Fiscal Year 2009 received congressional authority and a $5 million appropriation through DOE to clean up the site. DOE will keep $500,000 of that amount for oversight of the project. “It will be a clean closure,” Etsitty said, meaning that all contaminated soil will be removed and transported away from the Navajo Nation to an approved disposal facility.

Cassandra Bloedel of Navajo EPA, in an exit interview in January with the 21st Council’s Resources Committee, said the waste will be removed this year, possibly by August, and transported on state highways for final disposal at the “Cheney Cell,” about 12 miles southeast of Grand Junction, Colo.