Churchrock cleanup begins
URI assessment looks for
radiation hot spots
By Kathy Helms, Diné Bureau,
Independent, MAY 5, 2009
CHURCHROCK — Uranium Resources Inc.
and Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency began
a weeklong assessment Monday of Section 17 in Churchrock
where its subsidiary, Hydro Resources Inc., has proposed
in situ mining of uranium.
Rick Van Horn, chief operating officer
for URI/HRI, said Tuesday that the two entities are
looking at what the radiation values are and how they
impact the air, soils, and water in the area of Section
As part of the field work,0D background levels will
be established under the review of Navajo EPA. “We have
people that are looking over our shoulders providing
oversight on-site, real time, and that will be part
of the data set that we collect,” Van Horn said.
“We expect to finish this job by Friday
and then we’ll go back in and assemble all the data,
draw the maps based on the data, show where the radiation
is and where it isn’t, how many times background it
is, whatever. We’ll take all that data, get a report
together and sit down with EPA probably in six months.”
Van Horn said they have agreed with
Navajo EPA to look at five or six satellite locations
near the proposed mining site.
“These would be houses and residences,
to see if there’s any radiation spikes around those
areas, whether it be from windblown, or whether it be
from construction materials used to build the houses
Stephen B. Etsitty, executive director
of Navajo EPA, said the work being done is “essentially
part of that entire area where we’re looking at cleanup
actions or facility closures that happened in the past.
We’re just basically doing our double-check.”
Because URI purchased the property from
United Nuclear Corp., it is now responsible for the
contamination.20“If you accept something already contaminated,
you accept the liability for it,” said Freida White
of Navajo EPA’s Superfund program. “URI will do home
structure surveys for downwinders from the Section 17
site as part of their sampling and analysis survey.”
She said this will be more in-depth
sampling of the area surveyed by EPA in March 2007 to
further delineate the extent of contamination. “They’re
going to have to survey their area before they can know
whether or not anybody is going to have to move,” White
Larry King, who lives just outside Section
17, said Wednesday that the crew was on the scene. “Right
now they’re doing all the enclosed structures. If there
are any materials that were brought back from the mines,
they’re going to go ahead and scan those.
“I told them we have a large metal table
over at our old home-site corral that my dad had brought
back from the mine. So they’re going to survey that.
I’m also going to have them survey just off the north
side of the bank of Rio Puerco wash.
“When the wind blows, it used to blow
a lot of dust out of there. That’s where the spill was,
and all the mine water when they were dewatering the
mine and releasing all that water through the Puerco
The weeklong site characterization study
is expected to cost around $100,000, according to Van
“URI is being much more proactive in
working with us than in the past to make sure that any
contamination that wasn’t fully addressed in the past
is fully addressed today,” Etsitty said.
“With everything else that’s happening
out there, you start talking about Northeast Churchrock
Mine site, you can’t not say anything about the other
things, whether it be the NPL site or the Section 17
or the Section 8 issues. They’re all becoming more and
more interrelated,” he said.
The company is still evaluating its
response to a 10th Circuit Court opinion that Section
17 is part of Indian Country under the jurisdiction
of U.S. EPA rather than New Mexico Environment Department.
URI/HRI received its Injection Control Permit — the
final permit needed before it can begin in-situ mining
in Section 17 — from the state. Based on the court opinion,
it now will have to apply to EPA for the permit.
“We have until June 1, and that’s coming
up, but we are still evaluating our options as far as
whether to go for an en banc review with the full court,
or take the ruling of the court and then just go through
and go on to the EPA for a permit,=E 2 Van Horn said.
URI/HRI has a Nuclear Regulatory Commission
license for the Section 17 site.
“The first mine, by license, has to
be in Churchrock. We’re allowed to mine 3 million pounds,
I think, in Churchrock,” Van Horn said. “During that
time we have to demonstrate on a commercial basis —
this is a commercial well field — that we can indeed
restore the ground water to the ranges that are in our
license, in other words, get it back to baseline.
“After that is done, then we continue
mining Churchrock. Crownpoint would be the last area
that we would mine.”
URI currently is restoring ground water
at Kingsville, Vasquez and Rosita sites in Texas, which
is expected to take several years.
“In the case of Rosita, we have completed
most of the ground water and we’re at stabilization
on some of our areas. Kingsville and Vasquez, we are
basically treating our ground water with reverse osmosis,
RO, where we take the water out of the ground, we run
it through an RO unit, and return that clean product
water back to the ground and flush the aquifer with
clean water. It’s working well so far,” he said.
The company is
then required by the state of Texas to go into stabilization
for a period of 18 months to two years after which the
ground water will be examined to verify that it is indeed
“We have to have a restoration demonstration at every
new site we have,” he said. “The difference here (Churchrock)
is this is required on a commercial well field, so we
have to go in there and actually mine a well field and
then demonstrate to the NRC that we can clean it up”
to its previous condition.