EPA Plans Uranium Cleanup In Navajoland - 3 K. Helms Articles
By Kathy Helms
PINEDALE, N.M. – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 6 in Dallas is evaluating further options that may be needed for cleanup of the former United Nuclear Corp., uranium mill site.
The cleanup remedy chosen in 1988 basically has reached the end of its effectiveness and additional actions may be necessary, Mark Purcell of Region 6 told Navajo residents from Pinedale, Coyote Canyon and surrounding Navajo Nation chapters during a packed meeting Tuesday evening at Pinedale Chapter House.
“We are conducting a supplement site-wide study, and what that's going to show us is what else we can do out here,” he said. “Following that study, what EPA will do is we will put together a plan, something that we may propose different than the existing remedy.
“If we change the remedy and the process, we will present it to the community in a plan that outlines what we want to do and have a period of comment where people can look at that plan and comment on that to EPA, and then we would come out here and have a meeting like this and present it to you.”
Afterward, EPA would issue an amendment to the 1988 Record of Decision. The agency hopes to have the supplemental study done by the end of this year and the decision-making process sometime in 2010.
“We have done some good things here, some good technical work,” Purcell said, “but we are not finished.” Tuesday's presentation was the third five-year review by EPA since cleanup work began at the UNC mill site, located adjacent to the Northeast Churchrock Mine. The UNC mill, whch operated from 1977 to 1982, received uranium ore from Northeast Churchrock and Kerr-McGee mines.
Teddy Nez, of Red Water Pond Road questioned whether the contamination going onto Navajoland was spreading and getting worse.
Purcell said the contaminant plume is moving. “I don't know if it's getting bigger but it is moving from one point to another. We've not been able to stop it. Our remedy was to stop the contaminant and then collect it. The pumping has slowed it down and we're encouraged by that, but we have to get a handle on that seepage, and it is headed toward Navajoland.”
Henry Tso of Coyote Canyon, which is located to the north of the Zone 3 plume, wanted to know how fast the water is moving.
“Previously the water was moving at a rate of about 100 feet per year, but the new wells have slowed the movement to about 50 feet per year. We don't have a lot of time to stop it, and that's what this additional study is about,” Purcell said.
“As this acidic water is moving through the rock, it's changing the character of the rock,” he added. “The acidic water is changing some minerals into other minerals and plugging up this rock. So we feel that ultimately the movement is going to stop. Do we know where it's going to stop? Is it going to stop at 100 feet? We don't know.”
Larry King questioned whether Navajo allottees had been made aware that the contamination is moving onto their land, and one of the allottees, who preferred her name not be used, wanted to know whether contaminated surface water might pose a threat to her livestock.
“We have livestock on that land, and when it rains, there's water coming down that arroyo. How would it impact the animals?”
Purcell said he was speaking of contaminated ground water, rather than surface water, but that during the mining operation back in the 1970s up into the early '80s, “that water was mine water and it was coming down the arroyo. How does that affect your animals grazing at that time? That's a good question. I don't know the answer to that.
“Was it great water? I would say no, it wasn't good water,” he said. “I would say that as an allottee, you shouldn't be drinking that water.”
“What are you guys going to do if that plume crosses the reservation line,” King asked. “I believe the Navajo Nation could file a lawsuit against GE and UNC.”
Purcell said EPA has every intention of trying to clean up the ground water. “We clean up ground water contamination beyond the property boundary of these companies and facilities all the time. Under the Superfund program, we define the boundary of our site by the boundary of that contamination. So if that contamination falls through that boundary and goes into the Navajo Reservation, our site boundary goes into the Navajo Reservation.
“EPA Region 6 is committed to going after the contamination and first and foremost making sure there is no exposure to that contaminated water,” he said.
Arlinda Keyanna told Purcell, “You may be controlling the water, but the people are still being exposed. The people have cancer. The sheep – the meat is yellow. You're bringing up this contaminated water and evaporating it. It's going into the air. We're still affected.
“Our kids were taught in school, 'Don't buy sheep from this area, they're contaminated.' You can feel good about doing your job, but the people here are affected. It's in the air, it's in the water, it ruins our lives.”
In the 1988 Record of Decision, EPA chose a pump-and-treat remedy to address contaminated tailing water that seeped down into the underlying ground water of the shallow alluvium and Zones 1 and 3 of the Upper Gallup Sandstone Formation.
The remedy called for the operation of pumping wells to extract the contaminated ground water and evaporation ponds and spray systems to evaporate the extracted water. The system has been operating since it was completed in 1989. However, in the late 1990s pumping wells for Zones 1 and 3 were temporarily shut off because pumping rates decreased over time due to a lack of water.
Also, it was determined that pumping was moving the contaminated ground water away from the tailing disposal area at a faster rate in Zone 3. Since the wells were turned off, contamination in Zone 1 appears to have stopped moving. However, for Zone 3, contaminated ground water is continuing to move northward toward the Navajo Nation boundary.
Pumping results have shown that the remedy cannot stop the movement of the contaminated ground water and achieve all cleanup levels within a reasonable time period. Uranium levels in some wells within the Southwest Alluvium actually increased after the wells were shut off.
If it is impracticable for EPA to achieve cleanup requirements for some of the contaminants, one option the agency is considering is waiving some of those requirements.
Cleanup Of Uranium-Contamimated Homes Under Way
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – It's been nearly 40 years since the first list of potentially uranium-contaminated structures on the Navajo Nation was compiled. Now they are being assessed and cleanup has begun.
Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency hosted its sixth annual environmental conference this week at Navajo Nation Museum with a number of presentations devoted to the status of uranium cleanup projects across the Nation.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with Navajo EPA, have completed construction of two homes in the Oak Springs area of Red Valley and are beginning projects in Teec Nos Pos and Cane Valley.
Most of the residents want to maintain strict privacy, but the agencies are hoping to find a cooperative resident who will allow them to showcase the work during a future media day.
Stanley Edison of the Navajo Superfund Program, said cleanup of the contaminated homes is one of the bigger projects under their program.
Mine operators extracted around 400 million tons of uranium ore on the Navajo Nation between 1944 and 1986. Later, at least 581 abandoned mine sites were identified, most of which have been reclaimed by the Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Program.
In the 1970s, programs under the U.S. Department of Energy and EPA conducted radiological sampling in Cane Valley and Tuba City. More recently, Dine College surveyed homes in Teec Nos Pos, Red Valley and Cove.
“Back in the 1990s, Navajo EPA went to Congress and talked a little bit about the issues we had with uranium and associated problems with the uranium mining. As a result of that, EPA conducted at least 28 home surveys back then which resulted in two hogan removals,” Edison said.
Following congressional hearings in October 2007 before U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, five federal agencies were instructed to develop a five-year plan for cleanup of Cold War-legacy uranium contamination. Navajo EPA has committed to help U.S. EPA assess 500 structures over five years.
In April 2008, Navajo EPA assessed 113 structures and 56 home sites from the list developed in the 1970s as well as those identified by Dine College. Of those, 27 homes and 12 residential yards were identified as contaminated.
“As of November 2008, all structures in Cove, Red Valley, Tees Nos Pos and Cane Valley that were found to be contaminated were demolished and we're now in the process of replacing those structures,” Edison said.
Vivian Craig of the Navajo Radon Mitigation Program suggested radon barriers be included in construction of the new homes. She also was on hand when the two- and three-bedroom log homes were being built and has fond memories of one grandma who supervised construction.
“She was so humble about the whole replacement. They had those tiny forklifts bringing all the logs in down the skinny road that goes along the canyon. She sat out there in like 32 degree weather, in a folding chair with a blanket around her. She was just happy that the construction was ready to begin.
“We said, 'Grandma are you cold?' She said, 'No, I want to see everything that's going on.' She moved in about a week ago.”
Craig said the replacement homes are long overdue. “Grandma could have enjoyed this log cabin 20 years ago.”
One home in Cane Valley was removed, but because it sat on a natural ore-bearing formation, discussion is still under way as to whether to rebuild the home or relocate the family somewhere else. “The exposure rates are going to be continually even if EPA rebuilds the home there,” Edison said.
The trigger levels used was 15 millirems per year dose rate, based on a 24/7 exposure rate, according to Edison.
The two new notched-log homes are being built by local contractors using logs from Cameron. Besides the radon barriers, the homes also include ramps for the elderly and EPA-approved clean-burning wood stoves.
“These homes are located near abandoned uranium sites, too,” Edison said. “We have ore-bearing rocks that are close by so we take all
'Extreme Yard Makeover': Agencies Plan 4-Month Removal Action Of Contaminated Soils Around Churchrock Homes
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – Residents of Red Water Pond Road Community Association were told this week that they can expect further removal of uranium-contaminated soils around their homes to take four months, with work tentatively set to begin July 1.
Luis Garcia, community involvement coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9's Superfund Program, met with residents Wednesday evening at the home of Teddy Nez to discuss initial plans.
Garcia said U.S. EPA and Navajo Nation EPA are recommending an interim removal action on the lands of the Navajo Nation, basically from the Northeast Churchrock Mine fence line to the area outside the home site footprint addressed in 2007.
“Are we talking 'Extreme Yard Makeover'?” resident Tony Hood asked.
“While that's going on, there will be a great deal of heavy equipment and truck traffic happening right in this immediate proximity,” Garcia told Nez. Community members have requested temporary housing while the operation is under way. Once the soil is removed, the area then will be backfilled with clean soil.
“What I've been asked to do is to work with the residents here to identify what their needs will be for temporary housing and to make sure that their needs are met in accordance with the U.S. EPA's temporary housing guidance,” Garcia said. “We're currently in negotiations with the responsible parties on how best to administer that.”
He said there are a couple different options on the table whereby the responsible parties – United Nuclear Corp./General Electric – may fund the temporary housing. Otherwise, EPA will administer the temporary housing program which will require the agency to enter into an agreement with the families which will spell out the terms of compensation.
Garcia said the contaminated soils likely will be removed by a private contractor. Whether it will be EPA's contractor or a contractor of the responsible parties has yet to be determined.
“The agencies would like to begin the interim removal action July 1. That date is not yet confirmed or set. That is just our current target date,” he said.
After identifying a large volume of radium-contaminated soil, in 2007 EPA took emergency action to remove 6,500 cubic yards of soils from around four residences with the highest contamination levels. EPA spent $990,000 on the excavation, and required UNC to safely dispose of the soils at an additional cost of $1.3 million.
That removal action took approximately two months, according to Nez, who spent two weeks in a hotel while excavation was ongoing. Garcia said he did not have an exact figure on the amount of soil to be removed during this phase of cleanup, but believes it is more than twice as much as was done previously.
Cleanup of the Northeast Churchrock Mine site is a separate action from the residential soil removal. The Northeast Churchrock site is the highest-priority abandoned mine cleanup in the Navajo Nation. The mine adjoins the UNC uranium mill site, where remedies to clean up contaminated groundwater are no longer effective, according to EPA Region 6, which held a meeting May 5 to discuss issues associated with remediation there.
At the request of the Navajo Nation, EPA is using Superfund authority to investigate and clean up the mine site, in coordination with the existing adjacent Superfund site cleanup.
“We can't begin the remediation of the mine until we have done other processes. For the removal action of the actual mine site itself, we are finalizing an Engineering Evaluation and Cost Analysis,” Garcia said. The initial draft is expected possibly in mid-June, after which two public meetings and a 30-day comment period are planned.
Also yet to be determined is what to do with the soils to be excavated around residents' homes. Garcia said he did not know whether they will be taken to the mine site or removed to a landfill certified to handle that type waste.
He said there is no danger that contamination from the mine site will recontaminate the area in which the soil is to be removed. The sentiment of EPA technical experts is that it has taken 25 to 30 years to develop this degree of contamination. “You're not going to get that degree of contamination again in one to two years,” he said.
Grace Henio, whose home is located a few hundred yards across the dirt road from Nez's residence, said, “ It looks like you guys are doing it all on one side. My home is on the other side of the road.”
Garcia said he believes they are thinking about doing cleanup work on her side of the road as well, “but UNC/GE, I think, is making the argument that the contamination on the other side could be mixed with contamination from the Kerr-McGee mine,” which is basically located in her front yard, and makes matters more difficult.
“There is a water stream that comes off the (UNC) mine itself, the tailing pond, and it goes to her back yard,” Nez said.
Garcia said they will raise the issue with the people who are planning the actual interim removal action.
Section 17 resident Larry King expressed concern that only about two-thirds of Red Water Pond Road is slated for cleanup. “To my knowledge, this road, the gravel road, was all made out of mine waste.” When surveys were done several years ago by the Churchrock Uranium Monitoring Project, their results showed “hot” areas on the road past Henio's home.
“They're saying that your road is very clean,” King told Henio. “You must have been sweeping up.”
“So in other words, what you're telling me is when there is a flareup of sand dust, it's literally covering me,” Henio said.
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