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What’s in a name? When it comes to uranium waste, about $249M


It was unprecedented when in 1979 a breach in a holding pond at United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mill released 94 million gallons of radioactive tailings into the Puerco River, which was heavily relied upon by nearby Navajo communities.

Due to this spill, those communities have suffered severe health problems due to substantial increases in radioactivity found in the water, soil, and air.

“The embankment of the tailings impoundment was then repaired,” said Ashley Waldron, environmental project manager for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The spill was cleaned up and corrective actions were taken.”

Waldron acknowledged the impact of the spill and of everyday mining and milling activities on livelihoods, health, and the ability to use land for farming and grazing.

Waldron and the NRC held a forum on KTNN radio last week to explain a request that the NRC grant a license amendment to UNC to allow disposal of 1 million cubic yards of Northeast Church Rock Mine waste within the footprint of the old Church Rock Mill Site Tailings Disposal Area.

The Church Rock Uranium Mill Site is privately owned by UNC and is an NRC-licensed facility and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site. The NECR mine site, on the other hand, is located on Navajo Nation trust land south of the reservation, less than a mile from the mill site.

This disposal decision was developed by the U.S. EPA in 2013. The reason for this decision was it would be cheaper to transfer the waste down the road at $44 million than to transport it to the nearest off-reservation facility at $293 million.

“The U.S. EPA noted in its decision that the community and the Navajo Nation government had supported the transfer to a licensed repository further away from the Navajo Nation,” said Waldron. “U.S. EPA said it was not able to select this option under the Superfund criteria for its decision, which included cost.”

The Navajo EPA Superfund group has an issue with this plan. If the license amendment is approved then it becomes a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act action, in which U.S. EPA’s Region 9 will have to come in, and this isn’t being conveyed to the community, said Dariel Yazzie, environmental program supervisor at the Navajo Superfund Program, in a previous interview.

A concern for Yazzie is the “potential threat waste” that is indicated within the environmental impact statement. He said Region 9 wants to take out that reference and give it another, less threatening name. The Navajo Superfund Group wants to maintain the wording.

It’s not just semantics.

Waste labeled as a “potential threat” is required to be hauled off site, but since Region 9 wants to move the waste to a mill site within McKinley County, they want to change the distinction, Yazzie charged.

“That was the designation that it was given,” said Yazzie. “To me it’s a way for them to say ‘We aren’t going to haul it off site. We’ll build a repository here.’ That’s not the solution.”

Navajo EPA Director Valinda Shirley said efforts at this point are centered around what is happening on this site, because it sets the precedent for everything on Navajo.

“If they take out the ‘potential threat waste’ language in that incidence, it’s open season again,” said Shirley in a previous interview. “So we won’t be able to argue that point for Cove, Western, and so its important that it’s included.”

U.S. EPA Region 9’s Superfund Division is in constant and consistent communication with the Navajo Nation EPA on a range of topics, including a two-hour meeting earlier today, said Mike Alpern, the region’s director of public affairs, in an email to the Times last week.

The deadline for comment on NRC’s draft EIS is May 27. People can send comments to: UNC-ChurchRockEIS@nrc.gov.

U.S. EPA is currently reviewing the draft document and has not yet given comment.

About The Author

Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti reports on Navajo Nation Council and Office of the President and Vice President. Her clans are Nát'oh dine'é Táchii'nii, Bit'ahnii, Kin łichii'nii, Kiyaa'áanii. She’s originally from Fort Defiance and has a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. Before working for the Navajo Times she was a reporter for the Gallup Independent. She can be reached at abecenti@navajotimes.com. Follow her on Twitter at @abecenti


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