Skip to main content

Abandoned Mines an “Overwhelming Problem”

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently assessing 520 open abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation that have set idle since the Cold War, reported Francie Diep in the Scientific American.

"It's taking forever to get it cleaned up," said Don Yellowman, president of Forgotten People, an advocacy group for the western region of the Navajo Nation. "It seems like everyone's aware but nobody's taking notice. We don't understand," he told the Scientific American.

The remediation work began ten years ago. The EPA investigated company records to track down mines of private companies like Kerr-McGee Corp, who operated uranium mines under U.S. government contracts during the Cold War to go into nuclear weapons and fuel. As the war died and demand for ore slowed, companies deserted the pits as they were.

A bankruptcy settlement with the Oklahoma City-based chemical company Tronox Inc., a subsidiary of Kerr-McGee Corp., will add $14.5 million to the project to address the reservation's contamination. Just assessing the mines in Navajo Nation tallies to about $12 million yearly for the EPA. Remediation will cost "in the hundreds of millions," EPA Assistant Director for the region Clancy Tenley told the Scientific American.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Midway through visiting mines to measure radiation levels, Tenley told the Scientific American, "It's an overwhelming problem."

Leaders of the Forgotten People continue to draw mines desperately in need of remediation to the agency's attention. The EPA's efforts to assess mines taps under half of the Forgotten People's estimate of abandoned uranium mines on the 27,000-square-mile reservation spanning Arizona, Utah and New Mexico: about 1,300.

Recent publicity about a pit in Cameron, Ariz., spurred the EPA to assess the site. Lee Greer, a biologist from La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., participated in a conference call about the assessment's results. In July, Greer presented results from the Cameron pit to the Geological Society of America, reporting radiation levels higher than the agency's Geiger counters could measure. Geologists questioned why the mine was not marked high priority, since the uranium had reached the surface, subjecting people and animals to contaminated airborn dust and drinking water. Uranium exposure causes increased risk of lung and bone cancers and kidney damage.

EPA contractors, who initially said a site visit would happen within six months, assessed the pit Nov. 9. Unfortunately, an assessment is only the beginning -- cleanup could be years or even decades away.

"We have no estimate for how long it'll take to clean up all the mines," Tenley said.