Environment

Native Sun News: Navajo Nation gets $14.5M for uranium cleanup





The following story was written and reported by Kate Saltzstein. All content © Native Sun News.

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZONA — The Navajo Nation is expected to receive $14.5 million from a settlement with Tronox, a Delaware corporation, to help clean up uranium contamination on Navajo lands.

The date for Navajo to submit comments on the settlement with Tronox ended earlier this month with no comments filed, said David Taylor, a natural resources attorney for the Navajo Nation. Tronox, a spin-off from the Kerr-McGee Corporation, recently declared bankruptcy and the tribe is expected to receive payment from the settlement, part of a nationwide multi-million dollar agreement.

Tronox plans to reorganize, Taylor said. He described Tronox as “a company that Kerr-McGee attempted to spin off its environmental responsibilities on. It wasn’t a good deal; they filed for bankruptcy in New York,” where they have a corporate office.

The money will go to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation EPA to help clean up 40 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, according to a press release from the Navajo Nation Office of the President. Additionally it will provide $1.2 million directly to the Navajo Nation to help address environmental compliance at a site in Shiprock. Tronox is described as “a multi-national company that makes and sells titanium dioxide and other specialty chemicals used in plastics, paper and inks.”

“Bankruptcy court in New York State must approve the settlement,” Taylor said. “But I don’t anticipate a problem. Nationwide there are 20 states (set to receive funds).”

Thousands of claims were filed, but Taylor said that the Navajo Nation is the only tribe that filed. “The Tronox settlement is a good start,” to begin clean-up efforts, he added.

Uranium mines have dotted the landscape throughout the Navajo Nation and ill-effects have been outlined in several books and in testimony before Congress. The Grants Uranium Belt runs from Grants, N.M to Colorado, and Utah, “one of the largest uranium deposits in the country” Taylor noted.

For many years, Kerr-McGee mined and processed uranium and “99.9 percent was used in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons program.” he added.

“It has affected health. There are ongoing studies. Its anecdotal evidence, but the effects are overwhelming. There have been unusual eye conditions, possible birth defects, kidney impacts and respiratory problems of former miners due to radiation exposure,” said Taylor.

The mining operations left piles of uranium-laced tailings beside the mines. These rocks were picked up by unsuspecting families and used to build houses.

“The EPA has made an effort to identify places and tear down structures and build new ones,” Taylor said, “not enough effort if any has been made to clean up rivers contaminated by uranium.”

“There never was a river clean-up of the Rio Puerco after the 1979 spill at Church Rock,” considered one of the worst uranium spills in the country. “At a mill site in Shiprock, there is continuing contamination from a pile. The tailings pile has been capped. Still contamination has leaked into the San Juan River, that’s the worst problem,” Taylor said.

There are four piles of uranium tailings in communities on the Navajo reservation, in Shiprock, Mexican Hat, Tuba City and Church Rock.

In the tribe’s press release, Navajo Nation Attorney General Louis Denetsosie thanked attorneys with the US Department of Justice and the US EPA “for their work on the case and for their constant consultation with Navajo Department of Justice attorneys.”

In 2005 the tribal council passed the Dine National Resource Protection Act, declaring a moratorium on uranium Taylor said so there is no uranium mining now on the tribal lands.

(Kate Saltzstein can be reached at salty223@aol.com)

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