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Abandoned Uranium Mines Overwhelm Navajo

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A look at one uranium mine shows how difficult it will be to clean up the reservation's hundreds of abandoned Cold War-era mines

By Francie Diep, Scientific American

There's an old uranium mine on rancher Larry Gordy's grazing land near Cameron, Ariz. Like hundreds of other abandoned mines in the Navajo Nation, the United States' largest Indian reservation, it looks as if it might still be in use—tailings, or waste products of uranium processing, are still piled everywhere, and the land isn't fenced off. "It looks like Mars," said Marsha Monestersky, program director of Forgotten People, an advocacy organization for the western region of the vast Navajo Nation, which covers 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently embroiled in a massive effort to assess 520 open abandoned uranium mines all over the vast reservation. (Forgotten People says there are even more mines on Navajo land: about 1,300.) Earlier this month, the cleanup got a boost from a bankruptcy settlement with Oklahoma City-based chemical company Tronox Inc., which will give federal and Navajo Nation officials $14.5 million to address the reservation's uranium contamination.

During the Cold War, private companies such as Tronox's former parent company, Kerr-McGee Corp., operated uranium mines under U.S. government contracts, removing four million tons of ore that went into making nuclear weapons and fuel. When demand dried up with the end of the era, companies simply abandoned their mines as they were.

Remediation work started 10 years ago, when the EPA mapped the mines by investigating company records and surveying the land with helicopters equipped with radiation detectors. The agency is now halfway through visiting mines to determine their radiation levels. "It's an overwhelming problem," said Clancy Tenley, EPA assistant director for the region.

The mines expose Navajo Nation residents to uranium through airborne dust and contaminated drinking water. Many residents' homes were built using mud and rocks near mines, and some of that building material is radioactive. There are few published studies on the effects of uranium mines on nearby residents, but researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of New Mexico are working on health assessments, according to EPA officials. Researchers have known for decades that uranium exposure increases the risk of lung and bone cancers and kidney damage.

In July, the leaders of Forgotten People pushed the EPA to begin cleanup in Cameron because they were worried about the effects of the mines there on ranchers like Gordy, whose cattle drink and graze on uranium-contaminated land. Their tussle with the agency highlights the difficulties the EPA faces in all stages of its cleanup, which will likely take decades. The uranium mine Gordy found wasn't even included in the EPA's original atlas. "We're grateful to [Monestersky] for pointing that out to us," said Tenley, the agency spokesman. He initially said the EPA would visit the site within six months but publicity over conditions there apparently prompted a change of heart.

Instead, EPA contractors assessed the site November 9. A scientist who participated wouldn't discuss what he found without EPA officials present, and agency officials couldn't be reached for comment. However, Lee Greer, a biologist from La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., was part of a conference call about the assessment's results. Greer has been working with Forgotten People to record radiation levels at sites that interest the advocacy group. He said the EPA contractors found radiation levels at the mine that were higher than the EPA's Geiger counters could measure.

The accelerated assessment of Gordy's ranch came six days after Greer presented his radiation results from the site to the Geological Society of America. A geologist who was present at the society meeting said that, based on Greer's findings, a cleanup of the mine should be a high priority. "The sooner, the better," said Michael Phillips, a professor at Illinois Valley Community College. Because the uranium at this mine is on the surface of the land, people and animals are more likely to come in contact with it, he added.

But the preliminary assessment of the site is just the first step on a long road to a cleanup that is years and possibly even decades away. The time lag between an assessment and a remediation job depends on what scientists find at a particular mine, said Andrew Bain, EPA remediation project manager. The U.S.'s five-year plan for the Navajo Nation's uranium mines only covers assessment, not cleanup. The EPA started remediating the reservation's largest mine, the Northeast Church Rock Mine in New Mexico, in 2005, and doesn't expect to finish until 2019. "We have no estimate for how long it'll take to clean up all the mines," agency spokesman Tenley said.

As for the price tag, the recent Tronox settlement will only cover a fraction of the overall cleanup. Just assessing the uranium mines in the Navajo Nation costs the EPA about $12 million every year, said Tenley. Remediation would cost more, he added. How much more? "In the hundreds of millions," he said.

All this means a long wait for residents like Gordy, though they've already waited more than 20 years since the close of the Cold War. "It's taking forever to get it cleaned up," said Don Yellowman, president of Forgotten People. "It seems like everyone's aware but nobody's taking notice. We don't understand."

This article is provided by Scienceline, a project of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.


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No worries, Paul will be here shortly to explain what a boon the mines were to the Navajo people and that is why the Navajo should be responsible for cleaning up.

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Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA)


The United States Congress passed the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act in 1978 in response to public concern regarding potential health hazards of long-term exposure to radiation from uranium mill tailings. The Act authorized the Department of Energy to stabilize, dispose of, and control uranium mill tailings and other contaminated material at 24 uranium mill processing sites and approximately 5,200 associated vicinity properties.

During the 1950s and 60s, private firms processed most uranium ore mined in the United States for the Atomic Energy Commission, a predecessor of the Department of Energy. The processing plants were shut down, and the tailings piles from mill operations were abandoned. These sites presented a potential long-term health hazard because they contained low-level radioactive and other hazardous substances that migrated to surrounding soil, ground water, and surface water. Furthermore, the piles often emitted radon gas. The tailings and other contaminated material were also used as fill dirt or incorporated into various construction materials at thousands of offsite locations.

The goals of the UMTRA Program are to: (1) address immediate risk concerns and prevent further increases in relative risk at all sites; (2) complete surface remedial action work at all 24 mill tailings sites and related vicinity properties by FY 1998; and (3) complete ground-water activities in compliance with Environment Protection Agency standards no later than FY 2014.

The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act directed the Environmental Protection Agency to promulgate cleanup standards (40 Code of Federal Regulations 192) and assigned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to oversee the cleanup and license the completed disposal cells. The responsibilities of the states and Tribes include (1) acting as an interface between the Department and the local community; (2) participating in public meetings; (3) acquiring real estate, where necessary; (4) interfacing with the Department on the environmental assessment; (5) reviewing remedial action plans; (6) concurring on supplemental standards; and (7) concurring that remedial action is complete. The Act also required the states to pay 10 percent of the remedial action and site acquisition costs.

The UMTRA program does not have any current or anticipated need for nuclear material and facility stabilization activities. The scope of environmental restoration includes all costs for waste management, program management, and landlord activities attributable to the Department of Energy.


"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies."

Senator Barack Obama
Senate Floor Speech on Public Debt
March 16, 2006


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Natural Radioactivity in soil

How much natural radioactivity is found in a volume of soil that is 1 square mile, by 1 foot deep? The following table is calculated for this volume (total volume is 7.894 x 105 m3) and the listed activities. It should be noted that activity levels vary greatly depending on soil type, mineral make-up and density (~1.58 g/cm3 used in this calculation). This table represents calculations using typical numbers.

Natural Radioactivity by the Square Mile, 1 Foot Deep Nuclide Activity used

in calculation Mass of Nuclide Activity found in the volume of soil Uranium 0.7 pCi/g (25 Bq/kg) 2,200 kg 0.8 curies (31 GBq) Thorium 1.1 pCi/g (40 Bq/kg) 12,000 kg 1.4 curies (52 GBq) Potassium 40 11 pCi/g (400 Bq/kg) 2000 kg 13 curies (500 GBq) Radium 1.3 pCi/g (48 Bq/kg) 1.7 g 1.7 curies (63 GBq) Radon 0.17 pCi/g (10 kBq/m3) soil 11 µg 0.2 curies (7.4 GBq)

Total: >17 curies (>653 GBq)


"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies."

Senator Barack Obama
Senate Floor Speech on Public Debt
March 16, 2006


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South Africa relocates residents due to sinkholes South African authorities have begun the relocation of 3,000 families after huge sinkholes appeared close to their homes near Pretoria.

The depressions are said to be the result of a massive extraction of water by farms in the area, causing underground caverns to collapse.

About 50 families living in an informal settlement in Bapsfontein have been moved so far, officials said.

Authorities have said the land is no longer fit for human settlement.

'Immediate evacuation'

"The situation is so bad that there are several sinkholes that have formed around the area," Zweli Dlamini, a spokesman for the Ekurhuleni municipality, told the BBC.

He said the area around the informal settlement had been categorised as unsafe due to the possibility of the sinkhole "swallowing that piece of land".

Underground water was increasing the danger to a degree that gave authorities no choice but to order an immediate evacuation, he added.

Some of the sinkholes are more than 80m (263ft) across, and cracks now run throughout the land, says the BBC's Africa editor Martin Plaut.

Families have agreed to move and have been promised better houses to live in.

The relocation process is expected to run until mid-January, according to the South African Press Agency (Sapa).

This is how a poor country would handle the problem.

1,300 mines = hundreds of millions... Just move the people and fence the area off.

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Florida currently has more concealed-carry permit holders than any other state, with 1,269,021 issued as of May 14, 2014

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- A Nation Of Cowards, by Jeffrey R. Snyder

Tavis Smiley: 'Black People Will Have Lost Ground in Every Single Economic Indicator' Under Obama


Democrats>Socialists>Communists - Same goals, different speeds.


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