5-year uranium cleanup only the beginning

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, Nov. 14, 2011

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More than 100 people gathered here Tuesday (Nov. 8) to hear updates from federal officials on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's five-year multi-agency plan to address the health and environmental impacts of uranium development on the Navajo Nation.

Called the Navajo Uranium Contamination Stakeholder Workshop, it is a three-day summit held to update tribal officials and impacted Navajo community members on the progress of the plan, which is nearing completion.

Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for EPA Region 9, said the plan has been effective, as demonstrated by the large-scale cleanup at the Skyline Mine in Monument Valley, Utah.

"This is an incredibly effective return on the dollar," Blumenfeld said. "It brings in jobs and cleanup from the Cold War."

In addition to the cleanup at Monument Valley, Blumenfeld said both USEPA and the Navajo Nation EPA have screened 683 structures for contamination, completing the demolition and excavation of 34 structures and 12 residential yards. They also rebuilt 14 homes, he said.

Over the summer, USEPA also announced that it would begin cleanup operations at the largest abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo Nation - the Northeast Church Rock Mine - and investigate possible soil contamination at the former Gulf Mineral Mine in Mariano Lake, N.M.

Also involved in the five-year cleanup are the Centers for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, IHS, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and U.S. Department of Energy, all of which provided updates on their progress.

Their accomplishments include sampling 250 unregulated water sources, identifying and marking 28 that exceed federal drinking water standards for radiation, and funding $20 million worth of water projects to supply up to 386 homes that lack piped drinking water.

Also of importance is the CDC-funded Navajo Birth Cohort Study, which is being conducted by the University of New Mexico.

The three-year study will look at pregnancy outcomes and child development in relation to uranium exposure among Navajo women and infants.

Now in the last year of the five-year plan, Blumenfeld said Navajo EPA would continue to screen potentially contaminated structures and report suspected contamination to the USEPA.

At the meeting, President Ben Shelly informed the five federal agencies of the need for an agreement to continue addressing the legacy of uranium mining and milling on the Navajo Nation.

"We need to put that in writing," Shelly said. "Somewhere the partnership gets lost."

He also reminded them of the tribal law - the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005 - that bans uranium development on Navajo land.

Despite what USEPA considers progress, some Navajos directly impacted by the former uranium mining and milling thought otherwise.

Teddy Nez, who traveled from Church Rock, N.M., to attend the meeting, said he's disappointed in the way USEPA officials handled it.

"This is only government to government consultation," said Nez, noting that community discussion came at the tail end of the agenda.

"As a community member, the five-year plan is not working," Nez said. "We have to mention every day that there are still 520 abandoned uranium mines - they only cleaned up 1 percent."

Nez also said the planned Church Rock cleanup is too little, too late. The decision to place the soil from the mine in a disposal cell at the nearby United Nuclear Corp. mill site was made five years ago.

And the residents' appeal to remove the contaminated soil entirely from the area was ignored while they were kept in the dark about the decision to do onsite disposal instead, he said.

"All they had to do is tell us," Nez said. "We had five years where we could have done something. They set that decision in 2006."

For Bessie Tsosie of Mariano Lake, however, the stakeholders' meeting was educational, and her take on the feds a little more sympathetic.

"What I felt here from the federal EPA is their apologies, and they want to work with us," said Tsosie, who lives about a mile away from the Gulf Mineral site. "I feel empowered and I'm going to move forward to do things that do not only help impacted people, but other communities."

Tsosie has gotten together with other concerned community members in Mariano Lake to establish the Be a'kid ho'teeli Grassroot Organization, formed in response to the EPA's Aug. 1 announcement that it had reached an agreement with Chevron USA Inc. to conduct soil investigations at the abandoned mine.

Tsosie informed federal and tribal EPA officials during Tuesday's session that she sent letters to EPA Region 9 and NNEPA to communicate the concerns of affected residents and community members who fear the scope of work laid out by USEPA and Chevron may be too limited.

"We were never asked of our concerns," Tsosie said, explaining that her community learned of the agreement from a local newspaper and the Aug. 1 press release.

"I'm going to keep pressing them," she said.

The meeting also served as notice by the USEPA that it is committed to developing another five-year plan to continue the work of removing radioactive contamination from the Cold War uranium boom.

"The next five-year plan will be a tough challenge," Blumenfeld said.

The issue now is less about knowing who caused the contamination than making sure those handling the cleanup have the resources to implement in a coordinated matter, he added.

NNEPA Director Stephen Etsitty agreed.

"It's going to take a long time to address the health concerns," Etsitty said, adding that the need for health studies tends to be overshadowed by the cleanup efforts.

"The real other interesting component are the questions after the machines have left," Etsitty said. "Those human impacts are going to be big during the next five-year plan. We still need to make sure health studies are funded."

The stakeholder meeting ends today with a tour led by the Navajo EPA of the Shiprock uranium mill site, one of the first sites on the reservation to be targeted for cleanup.

Information: www.epa.gov/region9/superfund/navajo-nation/.

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