Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

January 23, 2015

EPA's millions won't bring back Navajo uranium miners

Navajo miners at Kerr McGee mine in Cove on Navajo Nation
By Brenda Norrell
Censored News

The US EPA announced a settlement that will bring millions to the Navajo Nation in uranium mine cleanups. Those millions will not bring back the Navajos who died from cancer and respiratory diseases after being sent to their deaths by Kerr McGee -- the company that knew the radiation in Cold War uranium mines would kill Navajo miners.

Even as late as the 1990s, in the communities of Red Valley and Cove on the Navajo Nation, just southwest of Shiprock, N.M., in every home someone was dying of cancer or respiratory disease. One Navajo woman in her 80s was living in a home made of radioactive rock, as the Geiger counter showed. 

On assignment for USA Today, I heard how Navajo miners were used as canaries, guinea pigs, in those mines -- sent to their deaths without protective clothing by an industry and a government that considered Navajos expendable. 

At the time, I lived in the Chuska Mountains on the Navajo Nation, and the strewn radioactive waste was, and remains, spread across the Navajo Nation from uranium mining. Navajos were dying in the communities of Cove and Red Valley. Death was everywhere. Radioactive rocks were everywhere. But even in the tourist popular Monument Valley, radioactive waste was, and is, strewn from uranium mining.

Nearby to Cove and Red Valley, in Shiprock, Gilbert Badoni (on right) showed me the radioactive rocks strewn in his backyard where his children played.

In the photo, Badoni, Navajo from Cudei, shows a poster of his family in a Southwest Colorado uranium mining camp. All the members of his family developed cancer or lung disease, including his late father who died of cancer. Gilbert, as a child in lower left in the poster, said the US government used Navajos as guinea pigs in those Cold War uranium mining camps.

On the Navajo Nation, and in the Pueblos, it was not just the miners who died. The radioactive dust covered the families food, the plants eaten by their livestock, and the clothes that their wives washed by hand. Generations were poisoned.

Today, the monster industry Kerr McGee who sent Navajos to their deaths, then attempted to avoid compensating miners, and Anadarko, the other monster company who poisoned the Southwest, entered into a settlement with the US EPA.

Even now, with this long legacy of death, new uranium mining companies target the eastern Navajo Nation. Today's millions will provide clean up for only a small portion of the unreclaimed mines that remain on Navajoland.

There is no victory in this settlement for cleanup, but here is today's statement from the US EPA:

 $2 billion in funds headed for cleanups in Nevada and on the Navajo Nation from historic Anadarko settlement with U.S. EPA, States

SAN FRANCISCO – Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice announced the settlement reached with Anadarko and Kerr-McGee is now final, allowing funds to be disbursed for cleanups across the country.

The settlement secures payments of $5.15 billion to resolve claims that the defendants fraudulently transferred assets in part to evade their liability for contamination at toxic sites around the country. Of this total, approximately $4.4 billion will be used to clean the environment. This is the largest sum ever awarded in this type of a bankruptcy-related environmental settlement with the federal government. 

“Communities from the Navajo Nation to Henderson, Nevada are finally getting the funding needed to take crucial steps toward cleaning up toxic legacies that pollute their environment,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “After decades of trying to avoid their environmental responsibilities, Anadarko is today paying billions of dollars to immediately fund these and other critical environmental cleanups.”

“This recovery will lead to cleanups across the country that will undo lasting damage to the environment, including contamination of tribal lands, by Kerr-McGee’s businesses,” said John C. Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “This result emphatically demonstrates the Justice Department’s commitment to environmental justice for all Americans, and it fulfills the Department’s promise to hold accountable those who pollute and those who try to foist their responsibility for cleanup on the American taxpayer.” 

An estimated $1.1 billion will be paid to a trust responsible for cleaning up a former chemical manufacturing site in Nevada that led to perchlorate contamination in Lake Mead. The site is located within the Black Mountain Industrial complex near Henderson, Nev. Fifty to 100 pounds of perchlorate are still seeping into Lake Mead every day, and the funds will allow that state’s Department of Environmental Protection to clean up the remaining underground sources of contamination.

The Henderson site is the largest perchlorate groundwater plume in the country. By way of the Las Vegas Wash, the plume has contaminated Lake Mead, which feeds into the Colorado River, a major source of drinking water in the Southwest. Perchlorate, a component in rocket fuel and fireworks, can interfere with the production of thyroid hormones, which are needed for prenatal and postnatal growth and development, as well as for normal metabolism and mental function in adults.

More than $985 million is expected to be paid to the U.S. EPA to fund the cleanup of approximately 50 abandoned uranium mines in and around the Navajo Nation, where radioactive waste remains from cold-war era Kerr-McGee mining operations.  Additionally, the Navajo Nation is expected to receive more than $43 million to address radioactive waste left at the former Kerr-McGee uranium mill in Shiprock, New Mex. The EPA is currently meeting with the Navajo Nation and the State of New Mexico to plan work to occur there later in 2015.

Kerr-McGee mined over 7 million tons of ore on or near the Navajo Nation from the late 1940s through the 1960s in the Lukachukai area, and from the 1950s to the 1980s in the Eastern and Ambrosia Lake areas. The Kerr-McGee Corp. was founded in 1929 as an energy company involved with oil and gas exploration and production, and uranium mining.  The company left abandoned uranium mine sites, including contaminated waste rock piles, in the Lukachukai Mountains of Arizona, the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, and in the Ambrosia Lake/Grants Mining District of New Mexico.

Exposure to uranium and other radioactive elements in soil, dust, air, groundwater and surface water, including waste rock piles and materials used in building structures, poses risks to human health.

In addition to the cleanups in Nevada and on the Navajo Nation, funds are also starting to flow to cleanups across the nation, including sites in Jacksonville, Florida, West Chicago, Illinois, Columbus, Mississippi, and Navassa, North Carolina.

On April 3, 2014, the United States Department of Justice announced this settlement, which was then subject to a period of public comment and judicial approval.  After considering comments from the public, the United States sought approval of the settlement, and on November 10, 2014, the district court approved the agreement as “fair and reasonable.”  The deadline for any appeals from the district court’s decision passed on January 20, 2015, without any appeals having been taken.

No comments: