EPA, agencies finalize Navajo cleanup plan

By Kathy Helms, Diné Bureau
Gallup 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 Southwest region.

“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 reservation.

During the next five years, EPA will complete a tiered assessment of more than 500 abandoned mines, taking action to address the highest priority risks.

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 contamination.

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 EPA.



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html