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?”