Largest abandoned uranium mine cleanup on Navajo Nation announced

Date of publication: 
30 September 2011

RENO, NV – The U.S. EPA announced Thursday it has approved a plan to clean up 1.4 million tons of radium and uranium contaminated soil at the Northeast Church Rock Mine, the largest and highest priority uranium mine on the Navajo Nation.

Northeast Church Rock mine operated as a uranium ore mine from 1967 to 1992.

Under EPA oversight and in conjunction with the Navajo Nation EPS, General Electric conducted two prior cleanups at the site to deal with residual contamination, including the remove and reconstruction of one building in 2007 and removal of 40,000 tons of contaminated soil in 2010.

The new approved plan is based on six years of work and more than 10 public meetings with the local community, the Navajo Nation and others. During the public meetings, residents expressed concern that the disposal of mine waste with nearby United Nuclear Corporation Mill site tailings could cause groundwater contamination, uneven settling of the tailings, or other problems with the current impoundment.

The multiyear cleanup will be conducted in several phases. Design of the disposal facility will take place over a three-year period. Construction of final mine sign cleanup will be completed by 2018. The cleanup will place the contaminated soil in a lined, capped facility.

“Consolidating the waste into one repository will return the land to the Navajo Nation for their traditional use,” said David Martin, New Mexico environmental secretary. “The cleanup will also endure long term stewardship to protect public health and the endowment.”

“This is an important milestone in the effort to address the toxic legacy of historic uranium mining on the Navajo Nation,” said Jared Blumenfeld, administrator of EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region.

The cleanup plan will provide unlimited surface use of the mine site after cleanup; send waste containing high levels of radium or uranium off-site for reprocessing or approved disposal; cleanup the contaminated drainage area east of Red Water Pond Road; provide voluntary housing options during the cleanup for community members living near the mine; provide job training and employment during the cleanup; and use the most stringent uranium mine cleanup standard in the country.

Mill site owner United Nuclear Corporation/General Electric has agreed to: hire locally through a Navajo hiring preference; provide a scholarship program for Navajo students to attend universities; improve Pipeline Canyon Road near the area of the mine and mill sites; and provide building materials for ceremonial hogans requested by the Red Water Pond Road community residents.