Tribes press government to clean up nuclear waste

Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press Writer
5/30/09

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Two American Indian tribes say their pleas to have the federal government remove medical, uranium and other radioactive waste from their land near Tuba City have been ignored, and they want it cleaned up.

Navajo and Hopi officials say the waste is contaminating the land and threatening water supplies.

The Hopi Tribe has put the federal government on notice that it plans to sue over the cleanup. On May 26, the Navajo Nation filed a motion to intervene in a 2007 lawsuit that was brought against the federal government by the operator of a uranium mining mill where some of the waste originated.

“I think everybody is starting to come together to accept the conclusion that there are contaminants affecting the shallow groundwater,” said Stephen Etsitty, director of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency. “But we still have differences in what the tribes believe and what the U.S. government is willing to accept, how grave the situation is and what the remedy should be in the end.”

El Paso Natural Gas Co. claims that the federal government is responsible for the cleanup of the mill, the Tuba City open dump and another landfill north of U.S. Route 160. The mill and the U.S. 160 landfill are on Navajo land. The 30-acre Tuba City dump is on Navajo and Hopi land.

El Paso and its predecessor, Rare Metals Corporation, operated the mill from 1956 to 1966, processing about 800,000 tons of uranium ore.

The mill is a federal processing site, and El Paso sought to have the landfills included in that designation. But a federal district court in March rejected the company’s arguments, and it is appealing, El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley said May 26.

Andrew Ames, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing the federal agencies in the case, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Congress appropriated $5 million earlier this year for cleanup of the U.S. 160 site.

Cost estimates for cleaning up the Tuba City dump are much higher at $35 million.

The BIA operated the 30-acre Tuba City dump for nearly 50 years before it was closed in 1997, and part of it was covered up and fenced off. In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the BIA to complete the closure, but the tribes said the BIA has failed to do so.

They want the waste excavated and taken off tribal land.

Water from an aquifer that lies directly below the unlined Tuba City dump is culturally significant to the Hopi Tribe, and residents rely on it for drinking and family subsistence farming, the tribe said.

Meanwhile, the residents of Tuba City are continually exposed to hazardous and radioactive materials, Etsitty said.

A few miles away at the mill site, uranium tailings and debris from demolished buildings are held in a disposal cell that the U.S Department of Energy monitors. The agency also has a groundwater remediation system in place.

But the hazardous materials at the site continue to threaten groundwater because they were simply piled up and covered, rather than placed in a lined cell as is required of municipal waste, Navajo officials said.

“There’s never been any kind of formal closure in the current regulatory sense at that place,” Etsitty said. “There’s just been enough soil put on these past existing trenches to cover them up.”

Although the government has taken steps in recent years to demolish and remediate a number of uranium-contaminated structures on the Navajo Nation, the tribe said large-scale cleanup is needed at the source.

“It’s akin to rural America, where there are not a whole lot of threats to a big population,” Etsitty said. “If these facilities were in a highly populated area, they’d be getting a lot of attention.”

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