10/6/2011 Navajo Times: ‘Another insult’ U.S. EPA to begin cleanup Church Rock uranium site By Alastair Lee Bitsoi: CHURCHROCK, NM: The announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Sept. 29 that it will begin removing radioactive soil from the largest abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo Nation came as no surprise for local residents. Radioactive soil from the Northeast Church Rock Mine will be removed and placed in on top of a disposal cell at the nearby United Nuclear Corporation mill site.
The removal was one of 14 disposal site plans the U.S. EPA considered and preferred when it announced cleanup plans for the site in May 2009.
It took the U.S. EPA six years of planning and over 10 public meetings to keep area residents informed of the cleanup efforts.
Officials from the Navajo EPA, who will provide oversight along with U.S. EPA of cleanup operations by General Electric, said residents from the Red Water Pond Community were informed of U.S. EPA’s decision during a Sept. 27 meeting held at the residence of Grace Cowboy and Bradley Henio in Church Rock.
“Our first priority was to ship mine waste out of the reservation to a repository in Utah,” said Larry King, a resident and member of the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, on Sept. 30.
U.S. EPA’s concern, King said, was the cost of shipping the radioactive waste off of Navajo lands to a licensed disposal facility, which would have cost the federal agency about $293.6 million to transport. This compares to $44.3 million to transport to the UNC site. Also an issue is shipping the radioactive waste through a non-Native community.
“I’m very disappointed in the decision, but it was expected because it involved an indigenous community,” King said. “Yet, uranium was being transported across Native lands in the 1970s and 1980s with no concerns at all.”
Chris Shuey, a researcher with the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, said from a public health standpoint people are still going to be living near a radioactive site.
“The potential impacts of this decision are much wider in the community and the implications of this site will apply to other mines on the Navajo Nation,” said Shuey, who has conducted research on the impacts of uranium in the Church Rock area for the last 10 years.
“When we talk about the decision EPA is making it’s another insult to a long history of insult,” Shuey added.
According to the U.S. EPA, the cleanup at mine will include the removal of 1.4 million tons of radium and uranium contaminated soil, which could take up to another seven to 10 years to clean up.
“This is an important milestone in the effort to address the toxic legacy of historic uranium mining on the Navajo Nation,” said Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for U.S. EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region, in a press release. “This plan is the result of several years of collaboration between EPA, the Navajo Nation, and the Red Water Pond Road community living near the mine.”
U.S. EPA’s cleanup plan also includes sending waste containing high levels of radium or uranium off-site for reprocessing or approved disposal, address soil cleanup in a drainage east of the Red Pond Water Community, and provide voluntary housing options during the cleanup for community members directly impacted by the mine.
The removal of the waste to the UNC mill site, which has been a Superfund site for the last 20 years, also satisfies the Navajo Nation’s request to remove the waste off trust land. The UNC mill site is located on private land owned by UNC and GE.
Stephen B. Etsitty, executive director for Navajo EPA, said cleanup decisions are handled on a case-by-case basis and whether sites are time critical or non-time critical, according to standards set by the federal Superfund Program.
“A cleanup decision is based on a variety of factors, such as, but not limited to if there is a responsible party, the future use of the site, the amounts of contamination that remains at a site, the level of background radiation in the area, how bad the contamination is, community input, and the status of Indian law,” Etsitty said.
Etsitty said a U.S. 10th Circuit Court decision in 2010, which focused on the definition of Navajo Indian Country, ultimately weakened the Navajo Nation’s argument to have Church Rock mine waste material transported out of Navajo country.
“The resulting remedy decision is a compromise,” Etsitty added.
In addition to the cleanup plan, GE has agreed to provide scholarships for Navajo students to attend the University of New Mexico or Arizona State University. They also agreed to exercise Navajo preference for cleanup jobs, improve the Pipeline Canyon Road and provide building material for ceremonial hogans as requested by Red Water Pond Community members.
Michele Dineyazhe, remedial project manager who will provide oversight for the Navajo EPA’s Superfund Program, said the specifics of a cleanup date have not yet been determined.
Dineyazhe said a technical team consisting of staff from GE, U.S. EPA, Navajo EPA, the state of New Mexico, U.S. Department of Energy, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will begin meeting to design the disposal cell. The design phase will take three years.
“Something like this is a milestone, but there is still so much work to be done,” Dineyazhe said, adding that the Navajo Nation’s position is to continue addressing the legacy of uranium mining at other sites. “Our intention is to do the best we can for the Navajo people and our land.”
The Northeast Church Rock Mine operated from 1967 to 1982 and included an 1,800-foot shaft, waste piles and several surface ponds.
GE conducted two previous cleanups at the site – one in 2007 that included the removal and rebuilding of one structure and the removal of over 40,000 tons of contaminated soil in 2010.