Settlement provides funds for Navajo mine cleanup

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) December 2010

Federal and Navajo officials say that $14.5 million from a bankruptcy settlement with a chemical company will help address contamination at dozens of uranium mine sites on the reservation.

The money is part of a $270 million nationwide settlement announced last month with Tronox, an Oklahoma City-based company that sought bankruptcy protection last year to reorganize its operations and alleviate environmental liabilities and litigation costs.

While the money going to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation won’t be nearly enough to clean up about 50 sites, it will provide for assessments and radiation screenings to determine the extent of any contamination.

“We do intend to see if there are other responsible parties for the mines and use our enforcement ability to try to supplement the funding and bring in more for cleanup,” Harrison Karr, acting senior counsel for the EPA in San Francisco, said last week.

The majority of the $14.5 million will go to the EPA to address the Quivira Mine near Church Rock, N.M. – one of the highest priorities for cleanup among some 500 abandoned uranium mines on the vast Navajo Nation – and 49 other mines scattered in the northern and eastern parts of the reservation.

The Navajo Nation will get $1.2 million to address environmental compliance at a former uranium milling site near Shiprock, N.M., where the groundwater is contaminated.

The settlement is subject to a public comment period. The settlement documents also are available for review in the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock until Jan. 2.

Each of the Navajo sites covered under the settlement are connected to Kerr-McGee Corp., the former parent company of Tronox and one of a handful of companies that produced much of the uranium on the Navajo Nation. Tronox sued Kerr-McGee and Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which bought Kerr-McGee for $18 million five months after Tronox was spun off.

Tronox has accused Kerr-McGee of saddling the company with hundreds of millions of dollars of environmental legacy lawsuits, stripping of its most valuable assets and cash, and undercapitalizing the company.

As part of the bankruptcy settlement, Tronox has agreed to give up 88 percent of its stake in any proceeds it receives from the pending lawsuit.

That could help further fund the cleanup of the Navajo sites. The Navajo Nation and the EPA are poised to get 23 percent of those proceeds but the actual amount is unknown.

“We’re very hopeful that will be a large number,” said David Taylor, a natural resources attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice.

Addressing the legacy of uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation has been a daunting task. Most of the physical hazards, including open mine shafts, have been fixed at the more than 500 sites.

Radiation hazards remain the concern. Mill tailings or rocks that weren’t rich enough in uranium ore and were left at exploration sites or mines could pose health hazards. The Navajo Nation and the EPA began aggressively targeting those hazards within the last decade. That includes the development of a multi-agency plan to address contamination.

Taylor says the tribe is grateful for the EPA’s cooperation but that the cleanup effort will be one that stretches past his lifetime.

“I personally have a lot of pride about the fact that we’re really taking it on,” Karr said. “That we’re working so well with the Navajo Nation in starting to make progress on a problem that has been out there for decades and has been neglected for too long.”