Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021
By Leona Morgan
“From 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website “Navajo Nation: Cleaning Up Abandoned Uranium Mines.” Some remediation has been done through two five-year cleanup plans, but is severely underfunded, and the sites are never restored to pre-mining conditions.
The EPA frames the cleanup of 524 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo Indian Country as a collaborative effort between the US federal agencies charged with the cleanup — US EPA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Navajo Area Indian Health Service, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — and the Navajo Nation (Navajo). Over the course of the public comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the proposed cleanup of the United Nuclear Corporation/General Electric (UNC/GE) Northeast Churchrock uranium mine, it has become glaringly clear that the federal government is not in collaboration or negotiations with Navajo at all, but rather dictating how to proceed.
Navajo EPA Superfund Director Dariel Yazzie and staff have been working to uphold the requests of the Diné Red Water Pond Road Community Association (RWPR) which will be most impacted if the controversial Churchrock cleanup plan is approved. UNC/GE proposes to “cleanup” the uranium mine by placing one million cubic yards of mine waste atop an existing mill waste disposal site, which is the same site as the 1979 Churchrock spill. For over a decade, RWPR has called for moving all radioactive wastes out of the area entirely. RWPR is opposed to the cleanup plan, despite the US EPA threatening that it may take several years before another is proposed.
Recently, Yazzie exposed how the US EPA doesn’t allow the Navajo Nation a seat at the table while making major decisions regarding cleanup, funds, contractors, etc. Yazzie has also slammed the NRC for moving forward a plan that is “incomplete,” as it does not include any of the recommendations from either the RWPR or the Navajo Nation, and is lacking information on design, engineering, and environmental studies and impacts. Yazzie joined the RWPR and countless others who have criticized the NRC for conducting virtual public meetings during the pandemic, while many locals did not have access to internet or phone service and were under lockdown — due to the severity of Covid-19 in Diné communities.
In her May 24, 2021 cover letter responding to the DEIS, Navajo EPA Executive Director Valinda Shirley condemned the US government’s failure in “assuring the stability and integrity” of the initial impoundment dam which breached in 1979, “despite the approved engineering.” Shirley explains, “This failure has drastically contributed to … mistrusting of the NRC, DOE, UNC/GE, EPA and their assurances on any environmental remediation activity.”
The Navajo Nation EPA is not only holding the federal government accountable to clean up the Churchrock area, but is also supporting community demands that the United States be named as the responsible party to fund cleanup of all abandoned uranium mines, and to work with affected communities to clean up to the highest standards.
At the request of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, the NRC has extended the DEIS comment period to October 31, 2021. For background info and talking points to send comments:
The RWPR’s annual event in remembrance of the July 16, 1979 uranium spill was not held last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, RWPR will do a private event. For updates: https://swuraniumimpacts.org/.
— Leona Morgan works with the Nuclear Issues Study Group in New Mexico. For background see: “A Second Churchrock Spill in the Making?” in the Winter 2020-2021 Nukewatch Quarterly.