FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — More than $1 billion is going to help clean up abandoned uranium mines that have left a legacy of disease and death on the Navajo Nation.
The money is part of a $5.15 billion settlement that the federal government reached with Anadarko Petroleum Corp. for the cleanup of thousands of long-contaminated sites nationwide. The settlement announced Thursday resolves a legal battle over Tronox Inc., a 2005 spinoff of Kerr-McGee Corp. that Anadarko acquired in 2006.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a member of the Senate Indian Affairs and Environment and Public Works committees, said we still don’t know “the full scope of the contamination,” but he called the settlement a “major step” toward repairing a “historic environmental injustice.”
In a statement he said, “The Cold War took a toll in the West, perhaps most tragically in the Navajo Nation. Over the years, the federal government failed to ensure the safety of uranium workers, their families, and the people affected by the hazards of exposure to radioactive materials. Uranium mining companies emerged overnight, left a legacy of sickness and contamination, and then tried to walk away without impunity.
“The Navajo Nation has fought hard, and today’s settlement helps to right a historic injustice to the Navajo people, the surrounding communities and the environment.”
Kerr-McGee once operated about 50 uranium mines in the Lukachukai Mountains of northeastern Arizona near Cove and a uranium mill in Shiprock, N.M. Uranium waste was thrust over the mountainside and carried by rainwater across the land used by hikers, anglers, medicine men and Navajo shepherds, said David Taylor, an attorney with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.
“I have a feeling of just deep appreciation for the Navajo children, who literally are playing in uranium piles today who aren’t going to have to do that in the future,” he said.
But Taylor added: “The path before us is still monumental. We’ve got a good start now, and I hope we can build on that.”
The more than $1 billion will address about 10 percent of the tribe’s inventory of abandoned uranium mines. About 4 million tons of uranium ore were mined from the reservation from 1944 to 1986 for wartime weapons. Many families still live among the contamination and fear drinking water polluted by uranium.
Navajo President Ben Shelly said the settlement will ease some concerns about public health.
About $1 billion of the money benefiting the Navajo Nation will be administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco. Of that, nearly $87 million will be set aside specifically for two sites known as the Quivira Mines near Church Rock, N.M. The Navajo Nation separately will receive $43 million to address the Shiprock mill, where uranium ore was processed near the San Juan River, the EPA said.
The federal government has been working for years with the Navajo Nation to address the more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation, but has been hampered by the costs of remediation and the unwillingness of some companies to pay for cleanup of their previous operations.
Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s regional administrator in San Francisco, said federal agencies spent about $100 million as part of a five-year cleanup plan. The EPA is drafting a second five-year plan, but the budget is expected to be much less, he said.
“The mess that’s on the Navajo Nation in terms of abandoned uranium mines should never have been put there, and all of us have been waiting for this day to start to make a big dent in the cleanup,” he said.
The mountainous sites near Cove rarely are visited, but a network of roads established for mining, logging and firewood gathering provide access. Tribal officials say Navajo medicine men gather plants and herbs for prayer and healing purposes from the mountains, and families set up summer camps where sheep graze nearby.
The federal government initially sought $25 billion to clean up decades of contamination at dozens of sites. A U.S. bankruptcy judge in New York ruled in December that Kerr-McGee improperly shifted its environmental liabilities to Tronox and should pay between $5.15 billion and $14.2 billion, plus attorneys’ fees.
Anadarko CEO Al Walker said the settlement eliminates the uncertainty of the dispute.
Blumenfeld said Navajos have struggled with the legacy of uranium contamination for too long. He said dozens of tribal members already have been trained in how to properly dispose of and transport contaminated waste, and they soon can be put to work.
“It’s one of those environmental justice burdens that has garnered a lot of attention and, thankfully, now it’s garnering a lot of money,” Blumenfeld said.