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PORTSIDE  December 2010, Week 5

PORTSIDE December 2010, Week 5

Subject:

Uranium Mines an 'Overwhelming Problem' in the Navajo Nation

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Date:

Fri, 31 Dec 2010 19:56:05 -0500

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An 'Overwhelming Problem' in the Navajo Nation

     A look at one uranium mine shows how difficult it
     will be to clean up the reservation's hundreds of
     abandoned Cold War-era mines

By Francie Diep | 
Posted December 30, 2010
http://www.scienceline.org/2010/12/an-%E2%80%9Coverwhelming-problem%E2%80%9D-in-the-navajo-nation/

There's an old uranium mine on rancher Larry Gordy's
grazing land near Cameron, Arizona. Like hundreds of
other abandoned mines in the Navajo Nation, the United
States' largest Indian reservation, it looks as if it
might still be in use-tailings, or waste products of
uranium processing, are still piled everywhere, and the
land isn't fenced off."It looks like Mars," said Marsha
Monestersky, program director of Forgotten People, an
advocacy organization for the western region of the
vast Navajo Nation, which covers 27,000 square miles in
Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently
embroiled in a massive effort to assess 520 open
abandoned uranium mines all over the vast reservation.
(Forgotten People says there are even more mines on
Navajo land: about 1,300.) Earlier this month, the
cleanup got a boost from a bankruptcy settlement with
Oklahoma City-based chemical company Tronox Inc., which
will give federal and Navajo Nation officials $14.5
million to address the reservation's uranium
contamination.

During the Cold War, private companies like Tronox's
parent company, Kerr-McGee Corp., operated uranium
mines under U.S. government contracts, removing four
million tons of ore that went into making nuclear
weapons and fuel. When demand dried up with the end of
the era, companies simply abandoned their mines as they
were.

The remediation work started ten years ago, when the
EPA mapped the mines by investigating company records
and surveying the land with helicopters equipped with
radiation detectors. They are now halfway through
visiting mines to determine their radiation levels.
"It's an overwhelming problem," said Clancy Tenley, EPA
assistant director for the region.

The mines expose Navajo Nation residents to uranium
through airborne dust and contaminated drinking water.
Many residents' homes were built using mud and rocks
near mines, and some of that building material is
radioactive. There are few published studies on the
effects of uranium mines on nearby residents, but
researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention and the University of New Mexico are working
on health assessments, according to EPA officials.
Researchers have known for decades that uranium
exposure increases the risk of lung and bone cancers
and kidney damage.

In July, the leaders of Forgotten People began pushing
the EPA to begin cleanup in Cameron because they were
worried about the effects of the mines there on
ranchers like Gordy, whose cattle drink and graze on
uranium-contaminated land. Their tussle with the agency
highlights the difficulties the EPA faces in all stages
of its cleanup, which will likely take decades. The
uranium mine Gordy found wasn't even included in the
EPA's original atlas. "We're grateful to [Monestersky]
for pointing that out to us," said Tenley, the agency
spokesman. He initially said the EPA would visit the
site within six months but publicity over conditions
there apparently prompted a change of heart.

Instead, EPA contractors assessed the site November 9.
A scientist who participated wouldn't discuss what he
found without EPA officials present, and agency
officials couldn't be reached for comment.  However,
Lee Greer, a biologist from La Sierra University in
Riverside, California, was part of a conference call
about the assessment's results. Greer has been working
with Forgotten People to record radiation levels at
sites that interest the advocacy group. He said the EPA
contractors found radiation levels at the mine that
were higher than the EPA's Geiger counters could
measure.

The accelerated assessment of Gordy's ranch came six
days after Greer presented his radiation results from
the site to the Geological Society of America. A
geologist who was present at the society meeting said
that, based on Greer's findings, a cleanup of the mine
should be a high priority. "The sooner, the better,"
said Michael Phillips, a professor at Illinois Valley
Community College. Because the uranium at this mine is
on the surface of the land, people and animals are more
likely to come in contact with it, he added.

But the preliminary assessment of the site is just the
first step on a long road to a cleanup that is years
and possibly even decades away. The time lag between an
assessment and a remediation job depends on what
scientists find at a particular mine, said Andrew Bain,
EPA remediation project manager. The U.S.'s five-year
plan for the Navajo Nation's uranium mines only covers
assessment, not cleanup.  The EPA started remediating
the reservation's largest mine, the Northeast Church
Rock Mine in New Mexico, in 2005, and doesn't expect to
finish until 2019. "We have no estimate for how long
it'll take to clean up all the mines," Tenley said.

As for the price tag, the recent Tronox settlement will
only cover a fraction of the overall cleanup. Just
assessing the uranium mines in the Navajo Nation costs
the EPA about $12 million every year, said Tenley.
Remediation would cost more, he added. How much more?
"In the hundreds of millions," he said.

All this means a long wait for residents like Gordy,
though they've already waited more than twenty years
since the close of the Cold War. "It's taking forever
to get it cleaned up," said Don Yellowman, president of
Forgotten People. "It seems like everyone's aware but
nobody's taking notice. We don't understand."

___________________________________________

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