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The U.S. nuclear weapons program during the Cold War required a steady supply of uranium. But, after 30 million tons of the metal were extracted from Navajo lands, about 500 mine sites were left behind.
Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded contracts worth $220 million to three companies to clean up 50 abandoned uranium mine sites near Grants and on the Navajo Nation.
The EPA announced last week that it has awarded contracts to Red Rock Remediation Joint Venture, Environmental Quality Management Inc. and Arrowhead Contracting Inc.
An EPA document outlining the project said the contractors will remove “immediate contamination risks,” and work with federal and tribal agencies to find permanent solutions.
“Structures and water sources in the area contain elevated levels of uranium, radium and other radionuclides,” the document reads. “Few of the legacy uranium mine sites have undergone surface reclamation, and many have physical hazards that remain, such as open adits and shafts, as well as uncontrolled waste rock and ore piles on-site.”
Arrowhead and Environmental Quality Management are Native-owned businesses. The companies will create workforce training programs for Navajo residents as part of the projects.
Training could include construction and education about uranium contamination.
The EPA has also supplied the contractors with an extensive list of Indigenous businesses that can contribute to the cleanup. The contract money comes from a $1 billion settlement reached in 2015 with Kerr McGee Corp. and Tronox.
The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency helped develop the contracts. Valinda Shirley, executive director of the Navajo EPA, said they represent important progress in restoring Navajo lands.
“We are very pleased that Native American-owned firms are being considered and selected for the remediation of uranium mine sites,” Shirley said in a statement. “The award of these contracts propels the cleanup of our priority mine sites across the Navajo Nation.”
Shirley has worked on Navajo EPA cleanup of Tronox mines in Arizona and the Church Rock Mine north of Gallup. A 1979 disaster at that uranium mill sent 93 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Puerco River.
University of New Mexico research has linked Navajo and pueblo patients’ prolonged exposure to heavy metals to immune deficiencies, as well as higher likelihoods of hypertension, diabetes, some cancers, kidney disease and cardiovascular disease.
UNM’s latest Navajo Birth Cohort study showed that 25% to 35% of adult Navajo participants had uranium in their urine at concentrations higher than 95% of the U.S. population.
Site assessments are expected to begin later this year.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.