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Discussion begins for uranium mine cleanup in Cameron

CAMERON, Ariz.

A community meeting was held in Cameron Saturday as residents began conversations on possible cleanup for one of the many uranium mines in the Nation.

The mine, Charles Huskon No.12 (CH12), is about a mile north of Cameron, not far from U.S. Route 89, and just a mile away from the Little Colorado River.

According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the site was mined from 1954-1961 and hauled an estimated 1,780 tons of uranium ore. It sat untouched until the ‘90s when the Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Department pushed the mine waste back into the main pit and covered it with clean dirt. They covered the rest of the area and any leftover material within the site’s 13 acres. The site is fenced off and does not pose an immediate danger to the community.

The meeting was held by the federal and Navajo Nation EPA.

Over 500 uranium mines on Navajo

The U.S. EPA reports that there are currently 523 abandoned uranium mines in the Nation, with 111 in the Western Navajo region. Of those 111, funds are available to clean up 43 sites.

The U.S. EPA is currently conducting removal site evaluations at different mines and is searching for companies that own the mines and thus are responsible for assessing and cleaning up the waste.

The El Paso Natural Gas Company owns CH12. It owns the most known mines in the Navajo Nation, numbering 19. Representatives had agreed to sponsor the evaluation of their sites and the following cleanup process.

The EPA evaluated CH12 in 2019 for possible removal and cleanup of the site, and it is now in the engineering evaluation and cost analysis phase. As this step is nearing its end this year, the EPA takes the next step with a public comment period, informing the community of their findings and options.

The EPA invited people from the Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Bodaway-Gap, and Leupp chapters.

High radiation

The removal site evaluation found the pits at the mine contained waste with high radiation, and the mining had exposed bedrock with slightly high radiation. Some residents are concerned that erosion and rain could pollute the area with radiation though the survey found the channels leaving the area and the haul road does not have mine wastes.

However, the outcrops with naturally high uranium could pose a risk to future residents if any move into the area. The U.S. EPA can only clean up mine-related waste so that the outcrops will be left in their natural state.

Three cleanup alternatives are being considered by the U.S. EPA, which would like the community’s input on determining which would determine the best outcome for the people of the region.

Alternative 1 is to leave the site as it is, causing no impact on community lives and zero costs, but it does not protect the people or the environment.

Alternative 2 (U.S. EPA’s recommended option) is enhanced onsite containment. It would add a multilayer cover of soil and rock that will resist erosion and cover the previous cap placed by NAMLRD. The cap and area will be re-vegetated and will need long-term land control, maintenance, and restricted home sites.

It would protect the people and the environment but will cost $1.1 million to execute, using 4 million gallons of water and over a thousand trucks slated to last over four months.

The EPA believes this is the best option because of its short and long-term effectiveness, and it is the most implementable and cost-effective of the alternatives. It will cause less construction that would affect daily lives, use the least water, and create a minor environmental disturbance.

Alternative three calls for excavating and disposing of contaminated materials in an off-Navajo Nation land-engineered repository in Utah. This option will remove the radiated wastes from the Nation, but would cost $9 million, 8 million gallons of water, involve over 3,000 trucks, and could take nine months to complete, if not longer.

Hauling radiated material

It would disrupt local life and require more planning with the community to organize the safe hauling of radiated material.

The meeting lasted 6 hours, 2 hours longer than initially planned, as the agencies presented its findings and explained the cost for each alternative.

Speaking were representatives from the EPA, NNEPA, Cameron chapter officials, health organizations, and community members. Delegate Casey Allen Johnson was also present as he looked over the data and listened to the people.

Many community members attended the meeting and squeezed into the Dzi? ?ibéí Elementary gymnasium.

During the discussion, residents talked of their fears of the contaminated site, their own experiences with the local mines, or their friends and loved ones suffering from cancer that the abandoned mines may have caused.

One elder told her own story of when she was a girl and watched the miners beginning excavation not far from her hogan, and at no point did anyone tell them what they were mining or what uranium was. It wouldn’t be until 30 years later did someone warned the family not to let anyone drink from a local watering hole, saying it was contaminated.

Also present at the meeting was Derrith Watchman-Moore, trustee of the Phase II Removal Site Evaluation Trust. She manages investigative reports and analysis and creates alternatives for cleanups, working primarily with abandoned mines that are now the federal government’s responsibility. She is the go-between for the federal government, U.S. EPA, and the Navajo Nation.

She said the gathering at Cameron was the biggest she had seen yet, possibly because of the many mines in the area. This is the first to reach the remedy development stage, getting close to the eventual first mine cleanup in the area.

“I think the more people that understand what’s going on, the better decision that the community can make for the community, and that decision should be communicated with the federal government and U.S. EPA and the tribal government,” she said.

Many stories were shared, but no clear answer was given. Discussion for the cleanup of CH12 will continue until April 4. Community members can also send their comments via larrick.colin@epa.gov or by-fee number 883-950-5020.

“So it (CH12 cleanup process) is further along than a lot of the other sites, which is good,” Watchman-Moore said. “Good for Cameron and good for the people that live around this particular mine.”


About The Author

David Smith

David Smith is Tódích’íi’nii and born for Dziłt’aadí. He is from Chinle and studied at Northern Arizona University. He studied journalism and English for five years while working part-time for NAU’s NAZ Today and the Lumberjack newspaper. After graduating in 2020, he joined the Navajo Times as a sportswriter for two years before leaving in September 2022. Smith returned in February 2023.

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