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Babbitt Ranches Turning Cold War Uranium Site into Conservation Area

In keeping with its more than 130-year commitment as stewards of the land, Babbitt Ranches is taking action to evaluate and address the presence of radioactive mining materials that exist on a parcel north of Wupatki National Monument, currently owned by the company.

These materials are the byproduct of surface mining activities conducted on the parcel commonly known as Section 9 in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was owned by Arizona Title Guarantee and Trust Company.

The area is part of the Little Colorado River Valley Conservation Area, designated as such by the Babbitts, whose efforts in recent years have included removing invasive tamarisk trees, restoring native cottonwoods and stabilizing archaeological sites.

Babbitt Ranches contracted with Engineering Analytics of Fort Collins, Colorado, to test the soil and measure levels of radioactivity on Section 9, located in a remote area about 10 miles southeast of Cameron. 

“Uranium lies on top of the ground naturally in a lot of places in the Four Corners region,” said Coconino County District 4 Supervisor Jim Parks, “Some of the uranium mining that was done was surface mining, scooped up with a loader and run through a sifter to extract uranium ore. Mining companies also crushed a bunch of rock and did the same thing; that’s where we get tailing piles.”

Babbitt Ranches has stepped forward to address the environmental issues at Section 9 as the current owner. Babbitt Ranches General Manager and President Billy Cordasco says the Babbitt family has always felt a deep obligation to the land. “We strive to understand and participate with ecological processes and want to always protect the natural and cultural resources. We believe we have an ethical responsibility to leave the land better than we found it. If there are higher than normal levels of radiation out there, we want to know about it and make sure the area is safe for its designated land uses.”

The U.S. government encouraged uranium mining in the 1950s and ‘60s during the Cold War with Russia. Uranium ore is used to make atomic weapons.

There are 523 Abandoned Uranium Mines (AUMs) on or near the Navajo Nation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been tasked with overseeing the cleanup of those mines through the Superfund program because of health risks associated with radioactive ore. The EPA website says, “Today the mines are closed, but a legacy of uranium contamination remains.” It cites potential health effects, including lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water. 

Three of the identified AUMs are on, or partly on, Section 9: AUM 457 is partially on Babbitt-owned land and partially on federal land under the Department of Interior; AUM 458 is entirely on land currently owned by Babbitt Ranches; and AUM 459 is mostly on neighboring State of Arizona land. A preliminary 2012 EPA assessment of Section 9 states, “The Site was mined for uranium at several intervals from 1957 until 1962. Low-grade uranium waste rock is present at the Site.” 

“Nobody lives there,” said Parks. “It’s pretty rough country and hard to get there.”

Babbitt Ranches Collaborating with EPA to Improve Site

In 2016, the EPA and Babbitt Ranches entered into a legal agreement called an Administrative Order on Consent (AOC), in which Babbitt Ranches would arrange to place warning signs and perform an assessment, a Removal Site    Evaluation. It is being called the Milestone Hawaii Section 9 Stewardship Project, named for one of the operators once active on the property.

“In signing the order, Babbitt Ranches does not admit liability, but takes responsibility to address the problem,” said attorney Earl Hagström, a partner in San Francisco-based Bassi Edlin Huie & Blum and Babbitt Ranches’ legal counsel.

“All three of the mines being evaluated under this order are very small and fairly well contained,” said Babbitt Ranches Project Manager Chuck Howe. “We don’t have an extremely high reading of anything. It’s a very small, low-intensity situation with respect to uranium and waste material on site. This site is on the lower end of the spectrum to be regulated, but due to its proximity to the Little Colorado River, as well as the awareness and attention brought to the site through media over the last several years, the priority of this site was escalated by the U.S. EPA for clean up.”

Jason Andrews of Engineering Analytics says Phase 1, Site Signage, has been completed. “That involved putting signs at the site notifying the public of what was going on and telling them to stay out of the site.” 

He expects to conclude Phase 2, Transect Gamma Scan and Background Study, by the end of this year. “We will go out and complete gamma scanning for radioactive signatures in the soil.”

Phase 3, Removal Site Evaluation, is the risk scenario, in which Engineering Analytics will provide a range of recommended actions on Section 9. “It will give us an idea of how much material needs to be potentially mitigated.” Andrews adds that there is radiation naturally occurring in the area; thus, he and his team will be identifying what are normal levels and what are TENORM, an EPA term used to describe Technically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials from uranium, caused by mining activities.

“Working with the Babbitt Ranches culture has been a breath of fresh air,” said Andrews. “They always want to do what the ‘right thing’ is. They have a ‘let’s get this done,’ attitude as opposed to, ‘let’s drag this out and fight it,’ which allows us to do the best science practical.”  

So far, the Babbitts are the only private entity outside of the Navajo Nation taking action on these AUMs, said Hagström. “Billy said, ‘Babbitt Ranches would step in and deal with this.’ The EPA has been pleasantly surprised with Babbitt’s proactive approach.” 

He adds that Babbitt Ranches is trying to approach the project from a regional perspective. “You can’t just look at this as an isolated AUM. Right next to their property is an AUM on state land. Some of the waste has spilled over onto the Babbitts’ property. Our position is, ‘Yes, we’ll study it,’ but the State of Arizona or the EPA needs to take action to prevent any more of the waste material from spilling over onto Babbitt’s property. It’s like, you can clean your floor, but if your kids don’t take off their muddy shoes before they come inside, you have to clean the floor again.”

Howe says the Milestone Hawaii Section 9 Stewardship Project is being handled with “classic Babbitt land ethics,” which is why ‘stewardship’ has been added into the name of the project. “There have been some cases where we have gone above and beyond. It makes sense to get more information now, to give us a much better data set to understand what’s out there and how to approach the entire situation.” 

To date, the project has cost Babbitt Ranches more than $1.5 million for environmental, biological and cultural assessments, engineering reports and consulting fees. Babbitt Ranches also is paying for EPA’s oversight costs and consulting fees. “At the conclusion of the AOC, we will have done all the studies and evaluations,” said Hagström. “The next step is to determine what areas and what amount of material needs to be cleaned up so as to protect human health and the environment.”

Paying for Cleanup

Hagström and Parks say environmental studies required by the EPA and mitigation orders have put a severe financial strain on Babbitt Ranches. “The reason Babbitt Ranches is on the hook for the cleanup is because the buyer defaulted on the note that the company carried back and now Babbitt Ranches owns the property,” said Hagström. 

He is urging the EPA to consider recommendations in a 2017 EPA Superfund Task Force Report, which provides that “when you have a responsible party, who is cooperating and stepping up to the plate to do the right thing, you should reduce the administrative burden on them,” he said. “Babbitt Ranches is the poster child for this. You’ve got a company that puts endangered species back on the land and restores river banks. The way the Babbitts are dealing with this is a testament to their values, their Cowboy Essence, as stewards of the land. They have stepped up and said, ‘We are the current owners of the property and we are going to take care of the problem, even though we have other options.’”

“This is not the Babbitts’ fault,” said Parks. “It’s the miners’ fault, but ultimately the burden of responsibility falls on our federal government because they didn’t have any mine cleanup laws or oversight at the time. This has been a disaster for the Navajo people for many years, a lot of misery, death and illness. Babbitt Ranches has been trying to shoulder the burden. They have cooperated with the EPA all that they can, but the EPA is not moving forward with cleanup, which means they’d have to spend some money.”

Creating a Conservation Area

Section 9 is part of a 16-mile stretch where Babbitt Ranches, together with Northern Arizona University (NAU) and the American Conservation Experience (ACE), have been engaged in efforts to restore Northern Arizona’s Little Colorado River riparian area. Goals include removing invasive vegetation, protecting old growth cottonwood trees, planting seedlings, creating habitat for native and migrating birds, decreasing fire risk and conducting climate change research. FBN

By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

Uranium Mining Encouraged by Federal Government

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the U.S. government was urging mining operations to search for uranium ore during the Cold War with Russia. The radioactive mineral was used to make atomic weapons.

To understand the extent of uranium mining on Section 9, a parcel of land located north of Wupatki National Monument currently owned by Babbitt Ranches, Dorothy House of SWCA Environmental Consultants researched the activity.

House reports that sites on Section 9 were leased by some “legitimate” mining companies from 1955 to ‘59 from the CO Bar Livestock Company, the precursor to Babbitt Ranches. Nearly 340 tons of uranium ore was shipped by those companies to the Tuba City Mill, which was owned and operated by the Rare Metals Corporation and then by the El Paso Natural Gas Company. Royalties received by the Babbitts’ CO Bar Livestock Company for those shipments totaled $88.12.

However, what followed is a story of fraud, theft and time served in prison by a mining company owner who was found to have scammed investors through uranium ore claims.

In August 1959, Murchison Ventures entered into a lease agreement with the Babbitts. In December, the mining company installed a machine called a “Benson Upgrader” at AUM 457. It was one of three Benson Upgraders later found to be at the center of a fraudulent scheme masterminded by Murchison Ventures owner John Milton Addison. According to House’s report, “Addison told investors the machine could upgrade low-grade, unmarketable uranium deposits to yellow cake, producing millions of dollars of profits per year.”

Public records reveal Flagstaff Assayer Rudolph Gracey told the Texas House of Representatives General Legislative Investigating Committee, “The Benson Upgrader was nothing but a ‘log washer.’”

In a legal deposition conducted by Flagstaff attorney Michael Mongini, Cameron Mining District Automatic Exposure Control (AEC) representative William Chenoweth said, “The upgrader ‘just never did work.’”

Records show Murchison Ventures shipped 22 tons of ore to the Tuba City Mill, for which CO Bar received no royalties.

Addison was found guilty in the federal fraud case, sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined some $36,000. He and his associates were found to owe investors and other creditors about $2 million. Babbitt Brothers Trading Company was owed more than $2,000 for lumber and hardware.

Bankruptcy Court Takes Control of Section 9 Land Parcel

In June 1960, the CO Bar Livestock Company sold Section 9 as part of a larger land sale. The warranty deed and all lease agreements were transferred to Arizona Title Guarantee and Trust Company on June 20. A week later, Addison was declared bankrupt. All his funds and assets – including the mining lease for Section 9 – came under the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

According to House’s report, the bankruptcy court then leased Section 9 to mining company Milestone Hawaii.

Milestone Hawaii Gives Up on Unproductive Mine

Milestone removed the Benson Upgrader and built a larger upgrader at the site. In March 1962, the company sent a 23-ton shipment to the Tuba City Mill, which was determined to have come from “processing waste material left on Section 9 from an old mining pit on Section 16 [south of Section 9], on Arizona State Land,” noted by Chenoweth in 1993.

House reports, “After five months of effort, the Milestone upgrader produced material just barely above the grade of waste rock; it was a technical and economic failure and dismantled.”

When the landowner defaulted on its loan, Section 9 property ownership reverted back to the CO Bar.

“The Babbitts never actively mined the area,” said Howe. “All the efforts were to support the national security interests, similar to all the sites across the river on the Navajo Nation. In some cases, there were good operators, in other cases, operators exploited the resources and the land. Complicating the issue, miners were operating under laws put into place in 1876, which did not call for the cleanup of mining operations.”

By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

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