10/4/2011 Northeast Churchrock Mine cleanup plan set By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent: CHURCHROCK – After more than two years of debate and a dozen public meetings, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has chosen to move approximately 1.4 million tons of radioactive soil from Northeast Churchrock Mine to a lined disposal cell on top of an unlined cell at a nearby Superfund site. EPA evaluated 14 disposal sites before choosing the same “preferred alternative” cleanup plan announced in May 2009. By disposing of the radium- and uranium-contaminated waste at the nearby United Nuclear Corp. uranium mill now owned by General Electric, the entities averted the lengthy process of siting and licensing a new disposal facility, which can take decades.
“They’ve just been playing around with us, and just to butter us up they’ve been having those stakeholder meetings, that’s what I found out,” Teddy Nez, president of the Red Water Pond Road Community Association, said Monday.
Cleanup could be accomplished in 2018 at a cost of $44.3 million, compared to the $293.6 million it would take to transport the waste to a licensed disposal facility. By moving the contaminated soils next door to Churchrock Chapter on private land owned by UNC/GE, it also satisfies the Navajo Nation’s requirement that the waste be transported off tribal lands.
“All they’re going to do, the way I understand it, is scrape the cap off, put it to the side, line it, and then put the other stuff on top. It’s basically going to be a new mountain,” Nez said.
EPA Region 9 found there was not enough room at the mill site to construct a new cell for the mine waste, as previously discussed, without impacting ongoing groundwater remediation efforts by Region 6. The major factor influencing the ultimate height of the cells is whether the waste is placed on all three existing cells, or is limited to one or two cells. EPA estimates the cells could grow by up to 10 feet in height but would be designed to blend into the landscape.
“Our position is move the stuff over there but dig out the contaminated trash, go to the bottom, then line it, put the old waste back in there and then put the other waste on top – both wastes, UNC and Kerr-McGee,” Nez said. In addition to Northeast Churchrock, EPA also is addressing two sites at the adjacent Quivira Mine formerly owned by Kerr-McGee.
Both U.S. EPA and Navajo EPA representatives held informal community meetings with Red Water Pond Road residents in April and May to explain the work going on in relationship to the two mines. They also held an informal meeting with residents a week prior to Thursday’s announcement. Nez said they were told not to invite the media.
Clancy Tenley of EPA Region 9 said they just wanted to meet with the Red Water Pond Road residents. “That was the first time we were telling anybody how we were going to clean it up, so we did intend to have it just them and not to be a big public meeting,” he said.
Stephen B. Etsitty, executive director of Navajo EPA, said every time U.S. EPA came out to meet with residents, they also were there. “We’ve heard the concerns from the Red Water Pond Road Community Association, we’ve had our own meetings with EPA directly, and we were able to brief the president at least three different occasions.” he said.
Residents were reassured they would have an opportunity to provide input during the three-year design phase. Nez said EPA will pay for the community association to hire Southwest Research Information Center as its technical consultant to aid the community in its understanding of the project as it develops and facilitate local input into the design process.
Transportation of “principal threat waste,” or the most highly contaminated soils, to an off-site disposal facility is another factor in the cleanup, Etsitty said.
“That volume of soil is yet to be determined. If it looks like the soils might be reprocessed and there is some economic gain possible, they’ll be taken to a reprocessing facility. I believe that’s in Utah,” he said. If it’s not possible, the soils will be transported 650 miles to the U.S. Ecology facility in Grand View, Idaho.
GE has offered to provide one scholarship per year for a Navajo student to attend either the University of New Mexico or Arizona State University, according to Nez, as well as improve Pipeline Canyon Road near the mine and mill sites, and provide building materials for four ceremonial hogans as requested by community residents. GE also will exercise Navajo hiring preference.
“Those are things that GE conveyed to EPA in a letter and that letter will be made part of the administrative record, but those things cannot be put into the administrative order of consent as enforceable items,” Etsitty said. “So we’re going to have to find a way to make sure that those promises are binding somehow.”
The UNC Mill, or final burial ground for the mine wastes, ceased operations in 1982 and was listed on U.S. EPA Superfund’s National Priorities List in 1983. EPA Region 6 has been actively trying to clean up contaminated groundwater at the site, but the plume has been steadily migrating closer to Navajo Nation boundaries.
Etsitty said they are concerned about groundwater contamination. “We want to know if there’s going to be any potential groundwater impacts underneath the mine site as well as what we know already about the mill site.”
Churchrock residents Scotty Begay and Larry King brought up concerns during public meetings about adding extra weight on top of the existing cell. Tenley said they received documents from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and then did an evaluation of the compressibility of the material as to whether there would be any impact on the cell or to the groundwater.
“There is groundwater contamination north of the cells. The question is, is there water still in the cells that would be squished out from putting additional waste on it,” he said. “We determined that the material could be safely placed there without affecting the stability or the groundwater.”
Disposal of the waste is contingent on UNC receiving a license amendment from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and approval by EPA Region 6.
Tenley said Region 9’s next step will be to meet with residents who were temporarily relocated during the last cleanup to discuss lodging arrangements for the next phase. They have one of two options.
“One is they could take a temporary move-out of their house during the cleanup, but that would be in a hotel for potentially years, and that’s not a very attractive alternative,” he said. The other option allows EPA to offer a “cash-out” for a permanent residence in the area that would be of comparable value in lieu of staying in a hotel, he said.
Prior to the big move, an emergency removal action will be conducted next summer near the home of Grace Cowboy, east of Red Water Pond Road, where a significant amount of contamination was found as a result of mine site runoff. An estimated 30,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste material will be removed and stockpiled at the mine site along with other waste removed during the previous interim cleanup. Estimated cleanup cost is $2 million.
Northeast Churchrock Mine operated from around 1967 to 1982 and included an 1,800-foot deep shaft, waste piles and several surface ponds. GE has conduced two previous cleanups, one during 2010 in which more than 40,000 tons of contaminated soils were moved and stockpiled at the mine site to await final cleanup.