Pressure Mounts To Fix Old Uranium Sites

November 7, 2007

As the next nuclear power rush emerges, many of the ravages from the last boom remain.

One of those problem areas is the thousands of old mines that were dug to extract uranium ore. During the era from the 1940s to the 1980s when most were excavated, many were simply abandoned when they played out or the economic incentives changed. Radioactivity now contaminates many sources of human and environmental exposure, such as windblown dust; materials taken from sites and used for construction; and groundwater. A number of old processing and milling sites also remain contaminated.

The hazards have been generally known for about 40 years, and some remediation has occurred. But the problems remain severe enough that US House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) held a hearing Oct. 23, 2007, to gather information about the dangers posed on Navajo lands in the Southwest, where about 1,000 sites are thought to exist. Many are clustered near the northeastern Arizona towns of Cameron, Cove, Forest Lake, Page, Sweetwater, and Teec Nos Pos; the northwestern New Mexico towns of Beclabito, Church Rock, Crownpoint, Sanostee, and Shiprock; and the southeastern Utah town of Oljato.

Several affected residents testified, as did a number of representatives of various government and tribal agencies that have some role in the issue.

Some of the primary problems are a lack of funding, and murky delegation of authority for remediation. Waxman directed representatives of EPA, the Dept. of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Health Service to come back in December 2007 with information on the money and authorization needed to finish the cleanup.

But that's just one problem area.

The EPA, which has primary jurisdiction over uranium mining wastes, says there are about 15,000 active and inactive sites in 14 Western states where uranium, or other materials known to contain uranium, were or are being mined or processed. About 75% of the sites are on federal and tribal lands. Background information and a link to maps and a GIS database are here.

EPA often works on remediation with other federal agencies, tribes, or states (whose information sources typically would be a state mining agency or geologist).

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or about three dozen states it has an agreement with, has jurisdiction over some facets of uranium mills, such as overseeing cleanup and remediation, and controlling emissions. NRC also has primary jurisdiction over the uranium produced.

After some of the old processing and disposal sites have been cleaned up, the Dept. of Energy's Office of Legacy Management continues to monitor, and sometimes pump and treat, nearby groundwater.

Some of the old mine sites may be re-mined as interest in nuclear power renews. At least six major sites are active on old or new locations in five states (CO, NE, NM, TX, and WY), and the NRC received in October 2007 applications for two more in WY. NRC: David McIntyre, 301-415-8206.

In addition, the Environmental Working Group's Dusty Horwitt says that the number of uranium mining claims in CO, NM, UT, and WY alone have jumped from at least 4,300 in fiscal year 2004 to more than 32,000 in fiscal year 2006. See Oversight Hearing on Hardrock Mining on Federal Land; uranium information is about one-third of the way down.

OTHER INFORMATION SOURCES

BACKGROUND ON URANIUM:

NAVAJO NATION

The Navajo are just one of the tribes affected. Navajo Environmental Protection Agency, 928-871-7692. Superfund program (including abandoned uranium mines); Stanley Edison, 928-871-6861. Washington, DC, office: 202-682-7390. April 29, 2005, ban on uranium mining and processing (Dine Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005).

ADVOCACY GROUPS:

NUCLEAR RESURGENCE