The United States and the Navajo Nation Agree to Second Phase of Work to Address Abandoned Uranium Mines
Today, in a settlement agreement with the Navajo Nation, the United States agreed to provide funding necessary to continue clean-up work at abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. Specifically, the United States will fund environmental response trusts to clean up 16 priority abandoned uranium mines located across the Navajo Nation. The agreement also provides for evaluations of 30 more abandoned uranium mines, and for studies of two abandoned uranium mines to determine if groundwater or surface waters have been affected by those mines.
The work to be conducted is subject to the joint oversight and approval of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The United States previously provided funding for evaluations at the 16 priority mines in a “Phase 1” settlement executed in 2015.
“This second phase agreement takes the next step in ensuring the cleanup of abandoned mines that pose the most significant risks to people’s health and initiates the evaluations of additional mines for future cleanup,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Addressing the legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands reflects the commitment of the Justice Department and the Obama Administration to fairly and honorably resolve the historic grievances of American Indian tribes and build a healthier future for their people.”
“We’re very pleased to continue this vital work to address the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation,” said Acting Regional Administrator Alexis Strauss for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest office. “In the last decade, the EPA has remediated 47 homes, provided safe drinking water to 3,013 families in partnership with the Indian Health Service and conducted field screening at all 523 mines.”
The Navajo Nation encompasses more than 27,000 square miles within Utah, New Mexico and Arizona in the Four Corners area. The unique geology of the region makes the Navajo Nation rich in uranium, a radioactive ore in high demand after the development of atomic power and weapons at the close of World War II. Approximately four million tons of uranium ore were extracted during mining operations within the Navajo Nation from 1944 to 1986. The federal government, through the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), was the sole purchaser of uranium until 1966, when commercial sales of uranium began. The AEC continued to purchase ore until 1970. The last uranium mine on the Navajo Nation shut down in 1986.
Many Navajo people worked in and near the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity to the mines and mills. Since 2008, federal agencies including EPA, the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of the Interior, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Indian Health Service have collaborated to address uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation. The federal government has invested more than $100 million to address abandoned uranium mines on Navajo lands. EPA has also compiled a list of 46 “priority mines” for cleanup and performed stabilization or cleanup work at 9 mines. Further, EPA work cleaning up mines has generated 94 jobs for Navajo workers.
This settlement agreement resolves the claims of the Navajo Nation pertaining to costs of engineering evaluations and cost analyses, and cleanups, at the 16 priority mines for which no viable responsible private party has been identified, as well as the costs of evaluations at another 30 such mines, two water studies, and modest costs for pre-assessment of natural resources damages. In April 2014, the Justice Department and EPA announced in a separate matter that approximately $985 million of a multi-billion dollar settlement of litigation against subsidiaries of Anadarko Petroleum Corp. will be paid to EPA to fund the clean-up of approximately 50 abandoned uranium mines in and around the Navajo Nation, where radioactive waste remains from Kerr-McGee mining operations. EPA commenced field work with the proceeds from this settlement earlier this year.