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U.S. EPA settlements require investigation of uranium contamination on Southwestern tribal lands

Release Date: 09/13/2010
Contact Information: Media Contact: Rusty Harris-Bishop, 415-972-3140, harris-bishop.rusty@epa.gov

SAN FRANCISCO – This week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entered into two enforcement actions, both of which will contribute towards cleaning up uranium contamination at the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation.

In one settlement, Rio Algom Mining LLC, a subsidiary of Canadian corporation BHP Billiton, has agreed to control releases of radium (a decay product of uranium) from the Quivira Mine Site, near Gallup, N.M. In addition, the company is to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the levels of contamination at the site. The total cost for this work is estimated to be approximately $1 million.

Under the terms of a separate settlement, the United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), will begin a comprehensive investigation of the levels of uranium and other contaminants in the waste, soils and groundwater at the Tuba City Dump Site in Arizona. They will also evaluate the feasibility of a range of cleanup actions.

“Uranium mining has left a toxic legacy, and we are working as partners with the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe and other federal agencies to clean up contaminated homes, mines and water supplies,” said Jared Blumenfeld, Regional Administrator for EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region. “These actions are just one part of a coordinated plan that has already resulted in the replacement of 14 homes, the assessment of more than 200 mines, and funding for water systems that will serve over 3,000 people with clean water.”

“The Navajo Nation is appreciative of the work done by U.S. EPA Region 9 on this matter,” said Stephen Etsitty, Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency. “We especially value the legal work done by the Region 9 Office of Regional Counsel in consultation with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, and we consider this a good first step in making Rio Algom accept responsibility for its past mining practices.”

From 1944 to 1986, nearly four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands. Today the mines are closed, but a legacy of uranium contamination from more than 500 abandoned uranium mines, homes built with contaminated mine waste, and contaminated water wells remains. In January 2008, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform directed five federal agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Energy, Indian Health Services, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission – to work together to address this problem. EPA Pacific Southwest Region took the lead in developing a collaborative five-year plan to address contaminated homes, wells, mine sites, mills, and dumps.

Potential health effects from abandoned uranium mines include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.

Rio Algom will pave a portion of Red Water Pond Road close to the Quivira Site, minimizing the spread of low-level contaminated dust. The company will also minimize erosion from the site, and repair fencing to prevent human and animal exposure to a large waste pile. Rio Algom has agreed to reimburse the EPA for oversight costs associated with the work. The Navajo Nation EPA will work with EPA in overseeing the work and reviewing the results of the investigation.

The Tuba City Dump Site is located near Tuba City, Arizona, about four miles from a former uranium mill. It covers approximately 30 acres and includes parts of both the Hopi Reservation and Navajo Nation. In 1998, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) undertook various activities to close the Site, including stabilization, fencing and posting of signs to restrict access. Under the agreement reached this week, BIA will complete assessment of the Site and will evaluate cleanup options for soil, groundwater, and waste. To date, BIA has spent over $4.5 million to investigate and address environmental conditions at the Site and estimates it will spend an additional approximately $1.5 million to complete the remedial investigation and feasibility study.

On September 14-16, EPA will be conducting a Uranium Contamination Stakeholders Workshop in Tuba City, Arizona. This free workshop is an opportunity to collaborate with co-implementers and stakeholders of the multi-agency Five-Year Plan to find practical and effective solutions to uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation. For a full agenda and information on registering, please contact uranium_conf@epa.gov.

For more information, please go to: www.epa.gov/region9/necr or http://bit.ly/8YgNoO

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