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Abandoned Uranium Mines Haunt Navajo Reservation

Linda Begay used the at pump at Box Spring, near Black Falls on a remote part of the Navajo reservation, as her primary drinking source until the EPA designated it contaminated with uranium five years ago. Photo credit: David Wallace/The Republic

Linda Begay used the at pump at Box Spring, near Black Falls on a remote part of the Navajo reservation, as her primary drinking source until the EPA designated it contaminated with uranium five years ago. Photo credit: David Wallace/The Republic

By Brandon Loomis for The Arizona Republic

AZBEX note: The Arizona Republic ran a series of three lengthy articles about impacts from abandoned mines. While this story focuses on the uranium mines in the Navajo Nation, Arizona has hundreds of charted and unmapped mines scattered across the state. This summary only looks at clean-up plans and the impact on new uranium mining plans.

Uranium is still a threat

Decades after America’s Cold War uranium binge, the Colorado Plateau remains scarred, poisoning and frightening a people who still live with the radioactive residue of 521 abandoned mines scattered across the Navajo Nation.

The U.S. promises a thorough cleanup, but at current funding levels, it could take generations to complete.

A $1B court settlement with one mining company this year raised hopes that serious cleanup will soon begin. But it is only enough to tackle a few dozen of these ghost mines, and neither U.S. nor tribal officials even know whom to blame for most of the rest.

A Government Accountability Office audit in May found that the (cleanup) plan had failed to identify the full scope and cost of total cleanup, and that the second five-year plan now under development would not do that either.

Responsible Parties Known

Unlike most other parts of the reservation, the owners and potential cleanup funders for two dozen mines around Cameron are known: El Paso Natural Gas, acquired by Houston energy company Kinder Morgan in 2012. The $1B for Navajo cleanup targets Kerr-McGee’s responsibility at just 49 of the 521 reservation mines.

The company has agreed to an EPA order that it spend millions of dollars scanning the mines to quantify radioactive hazards, but it maintains that the government should pay for cleanup.

The EPA has so far had success in court squeezing cleanup money from mining companies it can prove responsible.

“The federal government should continue to assess potential contamination and work — to the extent possible — to ensure that responsible parties are held accountable for their prior conduct,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said in a written statement in response to a question about the government’s role.

Navajo Skeptical New Mining is Safe

Navajo Nation Council delegates Leonard Tsosie and Leonard Pete faced a bitter crowd this spring at the chapter hall in Church Rock, N.M. Dozens of residents sat in the folding chairs with folded arms, skeptical of the politicians’ support for renewed mining.

Church Rock is the site of two massive uranium waste-rock piles. It is also where a 1979 dam break unleashed one of the biggest radioactive uranium contaminations in U.S. history.

Read more at AZCentral: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3