GAO auditing uranium cleanup

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

CHURCH ROCK, N.M., July 25, 2013

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A fter Terry Keyanna sits in on weekly conference calls with officials from U.S. Environmental Protection Industry Region 6 and engineers from SKEO Solutions, she reports back to her community about the status of the disposal cell where tons of radioactive waste will be stored.

The radioactive waste from the Northeast Church Rock Mine, owned and operated by the United Nuclear Corp. between 1967 to 1982 along Red Water Pond Road, will be removed and deposited into the adjacent UNC Mill Site, located on private property off N.M. Highway 566.

"Sometimes it's just a bunch of nerds bickering, I'm not going to lie," said Keyanna during the annual Northeast Church Rock Environmental Awareness Conference on July 20.

The environmental awareness conference, formerly known as "Uranium Remembrance Day," commemorates the day in 1979 when tons of uranium-laced water spilled from a holding pond into the Rio Puerco.

Keyanna said the "bickering" is a result of the deliberation between EPA Region 6 and SKEO Solutions, which provides technical assistance to EPA, and General Electric, the responsible party, on how to design the disposal cell at the processing mill - for instance, with a liner or not. The community prefers all of the nuclear waste to be removed from the area, but in September 2011 U.S. EPA determined transporting the mine waste to the mill site to be a more feasible alternative.

Since then, cleanup has been ongoing. Approximately 100,000 cubic yards of contaminated material will ultimately be removed from the mine site and moved to the mill site, according to the EPA.

The EPA is one of five federal agencies tasked in 2007 by Sen. Henry Waxman with addressing the legacy of uranium mining and milling on the reservation.

Keyanna, a 31-year-old mother, was among a hundred people to march last Saturday to spread awareness of the 1979 UNC mill site disaster, when the mill's dam broke and released approximately 1,100 tons of milling waste and 94 million gallons of waste waster - all radioactive - into the Rio Puerco.

The pH level of the radioactive waste was that of "battery acid," said Chris Shuey, researcher for the Southwest Information Research Center in Albuquerque, who also works with community members here. He added that people downstream from the Rio Puerco, immediately after the spill, burnt their legs in the gushing waste.

"That has never been part any of the health inquiries and at no time did anyone ever inquire about how many people had acute, immediate burns from wading in the stream," he said. "It was all about, 'We're going to get kids and take them to Los Alamos to get radiation testing.'"

At this point in time, Shuey said there is no definite number of people that suffered those burns. He did say, however, that he knows of at least a dozen people, who have since passed away.

"It's part of the spill history that doesn't get talked about," he said adding livestock were affected too. "There were both immediate toxic chemical affects and long-term radioactivity affects."

Even though this nuclear disaster happened 34 years ago on July 16, 1979, the high radiation levels still impact the livelihood of residents today with unexplained health defects like cancer and their farm animals' hairless newborns.

"This all needs to be cleaned up," Keyanna added, while standing and pointing to the nearby Kerr-McGee Quivera and UNC Northeast Church Rock Mines.

On top of being a mother and college student, Keyanna volunteers her time to help keep her community involved with cleanup efforts of the UNC mine and mill. Approximately 3.5 million tons of uranium ore from the mine was processed at the mill site.

At the awareness conference on Saturday, Stephen Etsitty, executive director for the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency, spoke about how the federal General Accountability Office was on Navajo auditing the achievements and lack thereof of the five agencies involved with the five-year cleanup plan from 2007 to 2012.

"We essentially told the federal agencies 'Thank you, but there still needs work to be done,'" Etsitty said, adding that Northeast Church Rock Mine, UNC Milling Site and Kerr McGee Quivera Mine will remain a top priority.

He added that the federal partners - EPA, Department of Energy, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Indian Health Service - are committed to a second five-year plan, pending the audit of the GAO office.

"They're investigating work done by the federal agencies," Etsitty said of the GAO, which was out on Navajo last week. "The GAO investigation will really focus on the level of resources for the next five-year plan, and they're going to issue this report in February of next year."

Etsitty also reminded the community that President Ben Shelly is committed to the cleanup efforts and is upholding the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005, a moratorium on uranium development on tribal lands until legacy waste is cleaned up, and a 2011 tribal law that prohibits the transport of uranium ore across the reservation.

But according to Larry King, an outspoken opponent of any uranium development and former UNC miner, Shelly is in fact entertaining representatives of Texas-based Hydro Resources Inc./Uranium Resources Inc.

The uranium company has a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to develop and operate an in-situ recovery project on the Section 8 and Section 17 properties located near both Church Rock and Crownpoint chapters.

In response, Etsitty said, "Shelly reaffirms the DNRA of 2005."

He also added that Shelly talking with HRI/URI reps is part of the President's "open-door policy" to hear from all sides of an issue.

Etsitty's answer wasn't enough for Edith Hood, who served as a probe technician at the nearby Kerr-McGee Mine from 1976 to 1982. She says her work as a probe technician, in which she was exposed to the "hottest ore" taken from the ground, eventually led to her lymphoma diagnosis in 2006.

Hood said that she's aware of certain tribal officials and lobbyists trying to overturn the tribal laws that prohibit uranium development from occurring or being transported across the reservation.

As for the cleanup efforts, she said it's very slow. She added that she would like to see Congress, which is aware of the legacy waste from the Cold War Era on the reservation, reaffirm the tribal ban against of any uranium development.

"Right now, I guess, people in Window Rock are trying to overturn that," she said. "We've been talking about the ban being possibly reinforced by Congress, so that they will all know because we already have mining companies lurking around, trying to get back in."

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or by email at