Clean Uranium Contamination From Our Lands, Navajos Urge Federal Nuclear Officials
High winds that swept through New Mexico on Friday, prompting fires and evacuations, gave residents of Diné in a small community in western New Mexico the opportunity to demonstrate firsthand the danger with which they live every day.
Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) were in the community of Red Water Pond Road, about 20 minutes northeast of Gallup, to hear local feedback on a controversial plan to clean up a uranium mine abandoned nearby. It was the first remembered visit by NRC commissioners to the Navajo Nation, where the agency regulates four uranium mills. President Christopher Hanson called the visit historic, and the significance was apparent in the presence of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and other Navajo leaders.
This story originally appeared in New Mexico In Depth and is republished with permission from a Creative Commons license.
As the commissioners listened to about 20 people testify for several hours on Friday afternoon, high winds ripped through the plastic sheeting hung over the sides of the Cha’a’oh, or shade house, making it difficult for some in the audience of several dozens of hearing everything that was said. “It’s like that every day,” community member Annie Benally told the stewards, mentioning the windswept dust outside. “They say it’s clean, it’s ok. But we have more heaps there and you see it blowing that way.
Benally was referring to piles of contaminated radioactive soil and debris at two adjacent abandoned uranium mines. A mine is close enough to the shadehouse for its door to be visible. The United States Environmental Protection Agency wants to move some of this waste to an NRC-regulated plant site, where contaminated groundwater is still being cleaned up. Driving north from Church Rock to the community of Red Water Pond Road is to appreciate how close the plant site is to the surrounding community. It is one mile south of the shade house, on private land but just off a highway driven daily by local residents.
After Friday afternoon’s listening session, federal commissioners held a town hall meeting in Gallup that evening where they heard from EPA officials. The NRC is expected to decide in June whether or not to authorize the EPA to move the debris from the mine to the plant.
Swirling dust outside was a recurring theme during the Friday afternoon session as residents described a generational struggle with significant health risks from uranium contamination.
“I’m glad we don’t have air sampling because that might scare some people off,” said Dariel Yazzie, Navajo Nation EPA Superfund program manager. Yazzie linked the swirling dust outside to the historic uranium exposure suffered by residents. Before running water was made available to them, people carried water in open containers, he said. “Guess what? You’re sitting there with a bit of dust on you. Everything had dust on it. Where did that dust come from? Right behind us.
Residents described growing up playing in contaminated landscapes, drinking water from mine sites, without being told it was dangerous. Commissioners have heard of parents’ concerns about the safety of their children when playing outside. Others implored the commissioners to help speed up the cleanup process, which has taken decades, as health effects like cancer and lung disease, which have spanned generations, continue.
“It’s not fair, it incites anger,” Benally said of decades of living with the contamination. “I’m 64 now, when they first arrived I was only 12. How long are we going to stay here, pleading and crying.” She urged the commissioners to keep the dust off them so that when they return home they will remember it.
The multiple hours of testimony concluded with remarks from Nez, who took stock of the message the residents were sending: mining waste should be moved completely outside of their community.
“That’s what the Navajo live with, imagine 500 open pit uranium mines on a windy day,” Nez said. “…the Navajos of this area have been living with this for a very long time, so we implore you, I implore you, collect this waste and keep it away from the Navajo Nation.”
The EPA’s cleanup plan wouldn’t move the contamination far, however, just to the nearby plant site. At Friday night’s public meeting, NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran asked San Francisco-based EPA Region 9 Superfund and Emergency Management Director Michael Montgomery if there were any other disposal sites outside Indian country, but still reasonably close.
Montgomery said current law only allows the EPA to go that far. It cannot install or create disposal facilities, nor ask a private party to do so, he said. The agency is working to identify locations on federal lands for other mine cleanups, Montgomery said, but for the Church Rock area, there are no easy solutions to get the waste out of the country. Indian. If the NRC did not approve the current plan, the agency would find itself in a “dead end” that would take years to overcome, he said.
Montgomery suggested that Navajo aspirations to remove all uranium mining waste from their lands would be difficult to achieve by the EPA alone. “If the solution for all mines is to remove all waste from tribal lands, that will require a dialogue that may be beyond our authority,” he said.
Montgomery’s answers seemed to confuse Baran. “Would the EPA accept the plant site option if the community it is meant to benefit objects to? ” He asked.
“There are a lot of prospects within the community,” Montgomery said. “You can’t always get everyone to agree.”
Nez took issue with those remarks later in the meeting after Baran asked him if he wanted to respond to one of Montgomery’s comments.
“I heard one hundred percent of my Navajo parents there say they didn’t want trash. So I wonder who are these people who can’t get along? ” He asked.