Agencies on Target For Uranium Clean-up on Navajo Reservation

Bloomberg BNA —Several federal agencies met most of their targets in a five-year plan to clean up certain abandoned uranium mines and uranium processing sites on the Navajo reservation, a Government Accountability Office report released May 5 said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and certain tribal agencies created the plan spanning 2008 to 2012 because the Navajo people suffered environmental and health impacts from previous uranium mining. As much as 4 million tons of uranium ore was mined, mostly for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, and the Navajo Nation has been left with uranium contamination in the water, buildings and the mines themselves, the report said.

The agencies succeeded in completing six of their eight goals in their five-year plan to clean up the reservation's contamination, including assessing 521 mines, processing sites, 97 water sources, 878 houses and structures and other sites for uranium contamination, largely because they increased spending on these projects, for some by more than $20 million, the report said. Additionally, the departments successfully settled three enforcement actions and began 24 more, monitored and treated groundwater sources, completed cleanup for a Highway 160 site in Tuba City, Ariz. and addressed related health effects on the reservation, the report “Uranium Contamination: Overall Scope, Time Frame, and Cost Information Is Needed for Contamination Cleanup on the Navajo Reservation,” said.

The agencies didn't, however, finish cleaning up the former Northeast Church Rock uranium mine northeast of Gallup, N.M. or the Tuba City Dump, a former unregulated landfill in Tuba City, Ariz., in part due to the Bureau of Indian Affairs' contractor issues, the report said. Both sites are listed on the EPA Region 9's Superfund site. The agencies are working on a new five-year plan, the report said.

The accountability office recommended all agencies estimate necessary time, costs and actions to completely address uranium contamination issues at the Navajo reservation, a task the Energy Department said would be difficult due to several uncertainties, including uncertainty about the extent of the contamination. The office also recommended Congress require the EPA take the lead in developing these estimates.

Agencies' Estimates

“We agree that attempting to quantify, in a detailed manner, the full scope of remaining work is not possible at this time because of the uncertainties we describe in this report, as well as those identified by DOE in its comments,” the report said. “However, we believe that the agencies' estimates can be improved and, for reasons detailed in our report, consider it essential for Congress to have more comprehensive information about the remaining scope of work in order to assess the overall pace of cleanup and to make informed resource allocation decisions.”

The report comes months after the EPA and five other agencies announced that since 2008, the $100 million-plus federal effort to clean up uranium contamination from mining on Navajo tribal land has resulted in improved mines, safer drinking water and demolition and replacement of contaminated homes.

Democrats Praise Work

Democrats praised the work the government has done but noted there is a lot left to do before the Navajo people will live in an uncontaminated environment.

“While the government has finally taken a first step toward addressing uranium contamination on Navajo lands, the GAO's report shows that there is a lot more we must do,” Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), House Natural Resources Committee ranking member, said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to support these efforts.”

A spokesman for Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals, told Bloomberg BNA the congressman is reviewing the report and is appreciative of GAO's efforts.

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