Churchrock cleanup begins

URI assessment looks for radiation hot spots

By Kathy Helms, Diné Bureau, Gallup 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 17.
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 or whatever.”

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 said.

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 wash.”

The weeklong site characterization study is expected to cost around $100,000, according to Van Horn.

“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 cleaned up.
“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.


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.