Native Sun News: Bankruptcy leaves few funds for tribal sites

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

A bankruptcy accord allots the federal government less than $7.4 million for disposal of massive amounts of abandoned radioactive uranium tailings and toxic waste that Kerr-McGee Corp. left at several open pit mines upstream from the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservations.

The U.S. Forest Service set a May 12 public meeting date for experts to discuss details of the far-reaching corporate bankruptcy case and explain the Superfund activities for burial of the exposed waste at the 325-acre Riley Pass Mines Site in the North Cave Hills of Custer National Forest.

The payment is a fraction of the $5 billion in environmental claims made by creditors in the bankruptcy proceeding for Kerr-McGee’s spinoff company Tronox Inc. The court settlement amounts to a total $270 million in payments, including $14.5 million for cleanup of abandoned uranium mines located on and around the Navajo Nation. Contaminated sites in 20 states will be affected.

The public information meeting about it will take place near the former Kerr-McGee mining site located in South Dakota’s extreme northwestern county of Harding. It will be held at the community center in the remote population of Ludlow, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., the Forest Service’s On-Scene Coordinator Dan Seifert told the Native Sun News.

“Hazards within the Riley Pass area include high walls, pit floor, unstable overburden, elevated radioactive materials, and heavy metals,” the Sioux Ranger District said in a bulletin.

The mine tailings, or waste materials, on the site consist of “fine-grained particles readily dispersed by wind and surface water erosion,” it continued. “Contaminants of concern include arsenic, molybdenum, thorium, and uranium.”

The Delaware-based Tronox Inc. initiated bankruptcy proceedings in 2009. It inherited the waste from its corporate predecessor Kerr-McGee Corp., which Anadarko Petroleum Corp. bought in 2006. Tronox is suing Kerr-McGee and Anadarko for leaving it without resources to meet cleanup commitments.

The federal government has joined the lawsuit, using a portion of the bankruptcy award for legal costs.

Concentrations of radioactive and toxic elements in sediment samples taken from impacted drainages at the Riley Pass site range from below established background to 10 times higher. Concentrations are several hundred times higher for mine waste samples. The waste is classified as radioactive and toxic, because contacting and ingesting the materials, or even just being near them, is linked to cancer, birth defects, mutations, respiratory, digestive, and nervous system problems, among other the adverse health effects.

“Human health and environmental issues are related to elevated levels of arsenic and radium 226,” the Forest Service said in the bulletin about the problem that has been growing ever since uranium mining began in the area in the 1950s.

To date, the Riley Pass cleanup site consists of 12 bluffs with abandoned uranium mines ranging in size from two acres to 150 acres.

The area also contains ancient indigenous petroglyphs and traditional Native American sacred sites. The best known is Ludlow Cave. Ongoing cultural resources preservation efforts to protect the relics are at a standstill due to the danger to field workers of emissions from the extensive abandoned mines.

The Standing Rock Reservation is downstream from Riley Pass on the Grand River, while the Cheyenne River Reservation is downstream on the Moreau River.

Contamination downstream sparks demand for water testing
Reservation community members living about 100 miles east of Riley Pass began asking for tests of their water in 2006, after the non-profit Defenders of the Black Hills environmental group alerted them to a Forest Service Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that revealed 89 abandoned uranium mines at the top of the watershed.

The Custer National Forest prepared the DEIS for oil drilling near the North Cave Hills and Slim Buttes at the headwaters of the Cheyenne, Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Similarly, the Forest Service mapped more than 200 abandoned uranium mines 50 miles upstream from the Pine Ridge Reservation along the Cheyenne River, in southwestern South Dakota.

The state and federal government do not routinely monitor radiation or radioactive elements in water supplies. Defenders of the Black Hills sampled supplies and found radioactive contaminants in water at Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule and Pine Ridge, as well as in the city of Yankton and the recreational area of Angustora Reservoir.

Issuing a “Report on Water Tests for Radioactive Contamination” in March, the organization encouraged constituents to urge that tribal councils obtain more water testing. The Sioux and Navajo tribes have signed resolutions making the reservations nuclear- and uranium-free zones.

“They all have the same problem,” said Defenders of the Black Hills Coordinator Charmaine White Face. But she added, “Until one of the tribes steps up and does something, it’s just a piece of paper: You can throw it away.”

Defenders of the Black Hills is collecting signatures on a letter to President Barack Obama in hopes of promoting the cleanup of the contaminated sites.

“Dear Mr. President,” it begins: “On your recent European tour, you stated that it was time to have a nuclear-free world, free of nuclear weapons.

“Did you know that in the middle of the Upper Great Plains are more than 1,000 abandoned open-pit uranium mines from the late 1960s and early 1970s? The wind carries radioactive dust from these abandoned mines from the middle of the continent to the East Coast and the South,” it continues.

“The rain and snow also carries radioactive particles down the streams and rivers which empty into the Missouri River and ultimately the Mississippi. This has been happening for more than 40 years!

“Wyoming and South Dakota have the most abandoned uranium mines but there are some in Montana and North Dakota as well.

“President Obama, you can do something about this situation. Please, through your Executive Office, declare a moratorium on any more uranium mining until these abandoned mines are uncontaminated and the land is restored, the exploratory wells are filled and capped, and the ground and surface water is once again safe enough to drink,” the letter concludes.

Same bankruptcy affects sites in Navajo Nation and many states
The Forest Service will split the $7.4-million settlement for the Riley Pass Mines Site with the EPA under the Chapter 11 bankruptcy agreement they reached together with other federal agencies and the Navajo Nation. EPA says it will receive a $96,000 share.

The funds are part of a total $270 million that Tronox and 14 affiliated debtors have agreed to earmark to settle environmental liabilities around the United States under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); and other state, local, and tribal environmental laws, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The company also has operations abroad.

In the Navajo portion of the settlement, the Navajo Nation should split $14.5 million with the U.S. EPA to help clean up 40 abandoned uranium mines located on or near the country’s largest Indian reservation. Some $1.2 million is designated for direct deposit to the Navajo administration to address environmental compliance issues at the Quivira uranium mine in Shiprock, New Mexico.

A bankruptcy court in Manhattan, N.Y. approved the agreement in January, putting it into effect in February and barring any further claims in the case against Tronox after March. Under the bankruptcy agreement Tronox is creating five environmental response trusts to take title to contaminated properties currently owned by the company.

“Tronox will pay the governments and the trusts $270 million for future cleanup and administration at these and other sites contaminated by Tronox and its predecessor companies, and in compensation for monies previously expended by the governments and penalties for which Tronox is liable,” the Justice Department said in a written statement.

Additionally, Tronox will transfer to the governments and trusts an 88-percent share of its interest in a pending lawsuit against the company’s former parent corporation Kerr-McGee and its new parent Anadarko, Justice said.

The lawsuit alleges that defendants fraudulently transferred valuable assets out of Tronox, leaving the chemical company with insufficient funds to pay the billions of dollars of environmental liabilities that Tronox owed to the governments.

According to Bloomberg financial news service, Tronox claims Kerr-McGee transferred about 2,800 polluted sites to Tronox after moving its most valuable assets to a new company that Anadarko acquired in 2006 for $18 billion.

Under the bankruptcy agreement, a portion of the $270 million from Tronox will go into a litigation trust to conduct the lawsuit in the wake of Tronox’s Feb. 14 reorganization. The company continues to be the world’s third-largest maker and vendor of titanium dioxide, with businesses in Europe and Australia as well as North America. Titanium dioxide is used for pigment in a variety of applications, including coatings, plastics, paper, and everyday consumer products.

“Our emergence from bankruptcy and our new capital structure is a significant accomplishment and makes Tronox a much stronger company for the benefit of our stakeholders, including our customers, vendors, employees, joint venture partner and shareholders,” said Tronox Chief Executive Officer Dennis L. Wanlass, when the company emerged from bankruptcy.

Tronox filed for the bankruptcy in January 2009 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. In August 2009, the United States registered claims against Tronox in the bankruptcy, seeking to recover past and future environmental cleanup costs, decommissioning costs and natural resource damages for sites presently or formerly owned or operated by Tronox.

The United States also sought civil monetary penalties for violations of CERCLA, RCRA, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The claims of the United States were brought on behalf of the EPA, the Forest Service, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The settlement also resolves claims of the Bureau of Land Management and a claim brought on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense.

“The United States, the Navajo Nation, the states and the local governmental entities worked closely and engaged in extensive negotiations to ensure that the settlement agreement reflected the needs of the contaminated sites and provided a fair resolution of Tronox’s environmental liabilities to the governments,” Justice said.

(Talli Nauman is the NSN Health and Environment Editor and is a co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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