The federal Environmental Protection Agency has awarded $220 million in contracts to clean up 50 of the estimated 500 abandoned uranium mine sites on the Navajo Reservation.
The three companies will focus on 50 of the highest priority sites, with money from a $1 billion settlement from the mining company Kerr McGee Corporation and its successor, Tronox.
The EPA and the Navajo Nation have so far secured agreements to clean up about 200 of the 500 known sites. However, the agency has fenced or stabilized just 29 mine sites, decades after their abandonment.
Rep. Tom O’Halleran, whose district includes much of Northern Arizona, hailed the contract awards.
“From World War II until the end of the Cold War, millions of tons of uranium were mined on Navajo lands, exposing mine workers and their families to deadly radiation. As a result, high rates of cancer, birth defects, and contaminated water sources remain a reality for residents of the Navajo Nation even now. I am glad to see my oversight efforts have pushed the EPA to make these critical investments,” he said.
Most of the research suggesting a health effect outside the ranks of the miners themselves has shown a weak causal link based on overall rates of disease among people in potentially contaminated areas. It’s much more difficult to categorically prove that a higher-than-normal cancer rate is actually caused by increased exposure to low levels of radiation in the environment.
The U.S. House last year prohibited additional uranium mining on about a million acres of land that drains into the Grand Canyon, fearing eventual contamination of Lake Mead. The vote was along party lines and over the protest of the Administration. O’Halleran supported that measure while Rep. Paul Gosar opposed it. The effort died in the Senate and the Trump Administration pushed to expand uranium mining on national security grounds. However, President Joe Biden has blasted that proposal calling the Grand Canyon an “irreplaceable jewel.”
The EPA last spring issued a 10-year uranium mine cleanup plan, with many of the old mine tailings qualifying as superfund sites due to air and water contamination with radioactive materials.
The Navajo Nation’s Environmental Protection Agency will oversee the cleanup efforts. Two of the three firms are owned by Native Americans and all three companies have agreed to use local labor and provide training for local residents.
O’Halleran has been badgering the EPA and other federal agencies for the past several years to accelerate the pace of cleanup of the abandoned mines in Arizona and New Mexico, most of them active during the Cold War and then abandoned without any significant cleanup.
As it happens, the latest member of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors – Fern Benally – has also for years lobbied as a citizen activist to forcing mining companies to clean up tailings and abandoned operations that have polluted the water table and left hazardous waste in many areas of the reservation.
From 1944 to 1986, mining companies removed 30 million tons of uranium ore from the reservation, which is home to some 250,000 people. So far the EPA has conducted preliminary investigations at 500 sites, completed detailed assessments at 113 sites and cleaned up 50 contaminated structures. The federal agency and the Indian Health Service have also provided non-contaminated drinking water sources for 3,000 families. The cleanup so far has fenced or stabilized just 29 mine sites.
One study of 600 Navajo families found that 27% had high levels of uranium in urine samples, compared to 5% of the U.S. population. Many of the mine sites left behind settling ponds in contaminated tailings, which left seasonal ponds long after the mines shut down. Many Navajo children played in those pools and livestock often drank from the pools. Some people even used discarded uranium-laced ore to build their homes.
Various studies of people who worked in the mines or lived near the tailings had a variety of health problems, including lung cancer, respiratory diseases, birth defects and miscarriages and other problems.
O’Halleran has also co-sponsored legislation to expand compensation for people exposed to radiation while working in uranium mines or living near dumps, plus people living downwind who might have been affected by dust blowing on the wind. He cosponsored House Resolution 737 pushing the EPA to do more to clean up the mine sites.
O’Halleran said, “The toxic effects of abandoned uranium mines, including higher rates of cancer and birth defects, continue to plague communities in my district, particularly on the Navajo Nation. We must ensure that abandoned uranium mine sites are remediated properly.”
The most recent contracts were awarded to Red Rock Remediation Joint Venture, Environmental Quality Management Inc. and Arrowhead Contracting Inc.
“EPA continues to work with the Navajo Nation EPA and local communities to address the legacy of abandoned uranium mines,” said Deborah Jordan, Acting Regional Administrator for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest office. “These contract awards mark a significant step in this ongoing work.”
The terms of the contract require the companies to ensure Navajo communities benefit from the extensive cleanup work and to provide workforce training in areas like radiological contamination, health and safety, construction and road building.