EPA, agencies finalize Navajo cleanup plan
By Kathy Helms, Diné Bureau
Independent, JULY 1, 2008
WINDOW ROCK — The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency and four other federal agencies have
finalized a five-year plan for cleaning up a legacy
of radioactive contamination resulting from years of
uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.
The plan is outlined in a report prepared
for the House Committee on Oversight and Government
Reform chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
The committee requested the plan last
October after four hours of testimony from representatives
of the Navajo Nation. Waxman criticized the federal
government for 40 years of “bipartisan failure” that
resulted in “a modern American tragedy.”
The landmark plan by EPA, in partnership
with the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Indian
Affairs, Indian Health Service and the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission represents the first coordinated approach
created by the five agencies.
“This plan serves as an important milestone
in addressing uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation,”
said Wayne Nastri, administrator of the EPA’s Pacific
“After years of working independently
on these issues, these five agencies have collaborated
with the Navajo Nation to establish a clear strategy
for cleaning up the legacy of uranium mining waste.”
Beginning in the 1940s, nearly 4 million tons of uranium
ore were mined at various locations throughout the 27,000-square-mile
During the next five years, EPA will
complete a tiered assessment of more than 500 abandoned
mines, taking action to address the highest priority
EPA is currently addressing the most
urgent risks — uranium-contaminated water sources and
structures. This spring, the Agency tested 50 water
sources and more than 100 structures for radiological
U.S. EPA and Navajo EPA have launched
an aggressive outreach campaign to inform residents
of the dangers of consuming contaminated water.
“We know which ones have high levels.
We can’t shut them down because it’s not a public drinking
water system,” said Margot Perez-Sullivan of EPA Region
9 Office of Public Affairs.
“What we are doing is we detailed someone
from our office here in San Francisco out to Navajo
and she’s working with Navajo Nation Public Information
Officer Lilly Lane.”
Zoe Heller from EPA’s Environmental
Justice Program and Lane are going door-to-door getting
the word out.
“They’re posting permanent signs, they’re
doing public service announcements, they’re doing a
whole lot of work to get the word out on these water
sources that have been found to have high levels of
radionuclides,” Perez-Sullivan said.
The good news is EPA’s data indicates
that if the livestock drink the water and then Navajo
Nation residents eat the livestock, it doesn’t pose
any kind of acute health threat, she said.
EPA also will use its Superfund authority
to address contaminated structures, and already has
targeted at least 13 structures for remediation.
“We’re going back out and we’re uncovering
the same rocks that were uncovered years ago, but we
have better lenses to look at what’s underneath them,”
said Stephen B. Etsitty, executive director of Navajo