joins Navajo fight for uranium cleanup
A former uranium mill operator
is suing U.S. agencies over pollution.
By Judy Pasternak, Times
May 17, 2007
WASHINGTON — El Paso Natural Gas Co. is lending support
to a new Navajo effort to force federal cleanup of one
of the Cold War's last major toxic legacies.
El Paso filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S.
District Court against the Department of Energy and
other federal agencies, seeking cleanup of debris from
an old uranium processing mill that the company operated.
"We view them as the appropriate
party," El Paso spokesman Bruce Connery said.
The company also has offered to press
Congress for funding and to take protective steps at
two old dump sites where radioactive material has surfaced.
The moves come in response to a recent
ultimatum from the tribe, which is pursuing a cleanup
across the Navajo Nation of contamination left by the
uranium industry in its quest for atomic-bomb fuel.
The tribe hired California lawyer John C. Hueston to
oversee the effort.
El Paso was responding to evidence the
Navajos presented showing its links to buried radioactive
debris that has been exposed by erosion.
The response is "just what we were
hoping for," Hueston said. "This will establish
an important precedent for other companies."
Elsewhere on the reservation, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, after prodding from
the tribe, has begun moving a small group of residents
to temporary lodging while radium-tainted soil is removed
from their homes. A pile of mine waste looms nearby.
Four abandoned uranium processing mills
and more than 1,000 old mines are scattered across the
Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, Utah and
New Mexico. The federal government was the sole customer
for the privately operated mines and mills, from the
days of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s until 1971.
The U.S. says all four mill sites and
about 900 mines have been reclaimed. But the recent
steps highlight the shortcomings of the cleanup effort
and the extent to which the job remains unfinished.
A four-part series in the Los Angeles
Times in November chronicled the lags as well as evidence
Navajos have died from toxic exposure. Hueston, a former
federal prosecutor who won convictions in the Enron
Corp. fraud case, read the series and contacted the
El Paso and a former subsidiary, Rare
Metals Corp. of America, ran a processing mill in Tuba
City, Ariz., from 1956 to 1966. For 20 years after it
closed, desert winds spread radioactive dust from the
The Energy Department finally covered
the pile, but Navajo lawyers contend that the agency's
failure to install a lining beneath it polluted the
In 2003, erosion exposed long-buried
mill debris, but Energy Department officials say their
cleanup authority has expired.
Dangerous levels of uranium have recently
been recorded in wells on both Navajo and adjacent Hopi
In a Monday meeting in Los Angeles,
El Paso outlined a plan to lobby members of Congress
from Arizona and New Mexico and those on key committees
to get federal financing for additional work.
The company also pledged to install
a chemical seal over the old dump sites and erect chain-link