ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The federal government has reached another settlement with the Navajo Nation that will clear the way for cleanup work to continue at abandoned uranium mines across the largest American Indian reservation in the U.S.
The target includes 46 sites that have been identified as priorities due to radiation levels, their proximity to people and the threat of contamination spreading. Cleanup is supposed to be done at 16 abandoned mines while evaluations are planned for another 30 sites and studies will be done at two more to see if water supplies have been compromised.
The agreement announced by the U.S. Justice Department settles the tribe’s claims over the costs of engineering evaluations and cleanups at the mines.
The federal government has already spent $100 million to address abandoned mines on Navajo lands and a separate settlement reached with DOJ last year was worth more than $13 million. However, estimates for the future costs for cleanup at priority sites stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could not immediately pinpoint the worth of the latest settlement.
Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden, who is with the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said the latest settlement marks the second phase of ensuring cleanup of mines that pose the most significant public health risks.
“Addressing the legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands reflects the commitment of the Justice Department and the Obama administration to fairly and honorably resolve the historic grievances of American Indian tribes and build a healthier future for their people,” Cruden said in a statement.
Navajo leaders have been pushing for cleanup for decades, specifically for the removal of contaminated soils and other materials rather than burying and capping the waste on tribal land. Since 2005, they’ve had a ban on uranium mining.
Over four decades, some 4 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from mines on Navajo lands with the federal government being the sole purchaser from the 1940s through the 1960s, when commercial sales began. The mining operations stretched from western New Mexico into Arizona and southern Utah.
Decades of uranium mining have left behind a legacy of contamination that includes one of the nation’s worst disasters involving radioactive waste: a spill in the Church Rock area that sent more than 1,100 tons of mining waste and millions of gallons of toxic water into an arroyo and downstream to the Rio Puerco. The result was a Superfund declaration.
Advocates have called for more studies on the health effects of continued exposure to the contamination resulting from the mining sites, and some have criticized the slow pace of cleanup and the lack of adequate funding for the work that needs to be done.
In a report submitted to New Mexico lawmakers last year, a team of consultants estimated it would take EPA more than a century to fund the removal of contamination at just 21 of the highest priority sites.
In a letter sent last month to President Barack Obama and EPA leadership, Navajo President Russell Begaye said the abandoned uranium mines project continues to struggle with outreach, coordination and trust issues.
EPA officials say in the last decade, the agency has remediated nearly four dozen homes, conducted field studies at all 523 mines on Navajo lands and provided safe drinking water to more than 3,000 families. Stabilization and cleanup work also has been done at nine abandoned mines.