Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it has approved a plan and committed to clean up the Northeast Church Rock Mine, the largest and highest priority uranium mine on the Navajo Nation.
The cleanup will include removal of approximately 1.4 million tons of radium and uranium contaminated soil and will employ the most stringent standards in the country. The cleanup will place the contaminated soil in a lined, capped facility. The multi-year cleanup will be conducted in several phases.
“This is an important milestone in the effort to address the toxic legacy of historic uranium mining on the Navajo Nation,” said Jared Blumenfeld, Administrator for the Pacific Southwest Region. “This plan is the result of several years of collaboration between EPA, the Navajo Nation, and the Red Water Pond Road community living near the mine.”
“On behalf of the Navajo Nation, I appreciate the efforts of the US EPA and Navajo EPA, and the cooperation from the state of New Mexico to clean up contaminated Navajo trust lands,” said Ben Shelly, President of the Navajo Nation. “A perfect remedy is difficult to design, and in this case every stakeholder can be proud of their input into the remedy. I look forward to the cleanup and putting people to work restoring our lands.”
The disposal cell will be designed with participation from the Navajo Nation, State of New Mexico, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Department of Energy. EPA will fund an independent technical advisor to aid the community in their understanding of the project as it develops and facilitate local input into the design process. The cleanup will allow unrestricted surface use of the mine site for grazing and housing.
“Consolidating the waste into one repository will return the land to the Navajo Nation for their traditional use,” said David Martin, New Mexico Environment Secretary. “The cleanup will also ensure long term stewardship to protect public health and the environment.”
Northeast Church Rock mine operated as a uranium ore mine from approximately 1967 to 1982, and included an 1800-foot deep shaft, waste piles, and several surface ponds. Under EPA oversight and in conjunction with the Navajo Nation EPA, General Electric conducted two previous cleanups at the site to deal with residual contamination, including the removal and rebuilding of one building in 2007, and removal of over 40,000 tons of contaminated soil in 2010.
Exposure to elevated levels of radium over a long period of time can result in anemia, cataracts, and cancer, especially bone cancer.
EPA’s work with Navajo Nation to identify and enforce against responsible parties is part of a 5-year plan to address the problem, which can be found at http://www.epa.gov/region9/superfund/navajo-nation/