Above photo: Signs warning of health risks are posted outside the gates of an abandoned uranium mine in the community of Red Water Pond Road, N.M. Steven St. John/for The Washington Post.
Window Rock – President Jonathan Nez has sent a letter stating the Nation wants radioactive mine waste disposed off of — and nowhere near — the Navajo Nation.
The letter is in response to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s recent proposal to allow United Nuclear Corporation to transfer the waste from the Northeast Church Rock abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo Nation to the neighboring uranium mill tailings impoundment at the UNC Church Rock Mill Site. Comments are being taken until May 27.
Nez’s letter to John R. Tappert, director of the ?Division of Rulemaking, Environmental, and Financial Support Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards ?for the NRC, states the Red Water Pond Road Community and many other Navajo communities have been severely impacted by the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.
The Environmental Impact Study finds that there were serious impacts to groundwater, public and occupational health, and historic and cultural resources from past uranium activities at the NECR mine and UNC Mill Site.
“Clearly the radioactive mine waste left abandoned at the NECR site must be removed,” Nez said. “Leaving it in place would have ‘large’ health and environmental impacts.
“Even removal of the waste will have ‘disproportionately high and adverse environmental impacts’ on nearby Navajo communities, due to transportation-related effects, impacts to air quality, increased noise levels, and visual disturbances,” the letter says.
Last week, KTNN held a radio forum to help listeners understand the proposal.
One million cubic yards of mine waste would be disposed of within the footprint of the Church Rock Mill Site Tailings Disposal Area, which isn’t on Navajo Nation but is surrounded by Red Water Pond Community and other Navajo communities.
Dump trucks would be used to transport the waste. One million cubic yards of waste could fill six football fields to a depth of 100 feet high.
The roads used to get this waste to the mill site would be inaccessible to the public, except for one crossing at Highway 566, said Ashley Waldron with NRC.
This disposal decision was developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2013. The reason for this decision was it would be cheaper to transfer the waste down the road at $44 million. Hauling it to the next nearest disposal site would cost about $293 million.
“The U.S. EPA noted in its decision that the community and the Navajo Nation government had supported the transfer to a licensed repository further away from the Navajo Nation,” said Waldron. “U.S. EPA said it was not able to select this option under the Superfund criteria for its decision which included cost.”
The Navajo Nation has asked U.S. EPA in the past to require the radioactive uranium waste currently at NECR to be transported to an offsite waste repository away from the Red Water Pond Road Community and other communities. U.S. EPA requires the removal of Principal Threat Waste, the most toxic or highly mobile waste, to an off-site facility.
The Navajo Nation also asked, and continues to ask, for off-site removal of mine waste exceeding U.S. EPA’s “action level” but not qualifying as PTW. This waste remains a threat to human health and the environment, as noted in the DEIS and as discussed above.
“While I appreciate it is very costly to transport such waste off-site, that cost cannot compare to the costs borne by the local communities … and the Navajo Nation as a whole,” stated Nez.
Navajo Environmental Protection Agency Director Valinda Shirley and NEPA Superfund Program Supervisor Dariel Yazzie said the Red Pond Water Community was displeased with the radio forum because it was only given in English.
“The community was very upset with it,” said Yazzie. “The technical jargon that they used was over their heads. The community, that was the first thing they cited: It was all done in English, we didn’t understand half of what they said, it was done in a way where it was looped back to back.”
Taking a stand on this issue will set a precedent for the other 524 abandoned uranium mines that plague the Navajo Nation.
“If we don’t take a stand on this now we got 524 AUMs,” said Yazzie. “Will that mean U.S. EPA wants us to have 524 repositories across Navajo? We need to find solutions that speak to addressing this waste material that’s been sitting in some areas across Navajo for almost 80 years.”
The Northeast Church Rock site is one of the largest and only AUM on Navajo that was given the designation of a Superfund site, but that took longer than most sites elsewhere in the country.
“U.S. EPA has this process to identify Superfund sites. Other sites in the United States get that designation right away,” said Shirley. “Northeast Church Rock has taken such a long road to get to that designation … It has a long history.”
Shirley said Nez’s letter makes a statement to U.S. EPA and NRC that the Navajo Nation does oppose the nearby repository and wants the waste to be moved elsewhere far from Navajo.
“It makes a world of difference and not only to the communities,” said Shirley. “But also from having to look back from what was said and what wasn’t. I think I read one of the presidents had given a slight OK to this … and that was misconstrued as Navajo Nation giving the green light to all of this to happen.
“But wanting to get the message straight, I think this statement does that,” she said.
The Navajo Nation therefore remains steadfast in its position that all NECR radioactive mine waste registering above U.S. EPA’s action level should be removed from the community. Simply transporting it to a facility less than one mile away from the reservation boundary, while it technically is removing it from the Navajo Nation, in reality is just taking it from one side of the road to the other, states Nez’s letter.
Send public comments to: UNC-ChurchRockEIS@nrc.gov by May 27.