WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2017 (ENS) – In one of the last actions of the Obama administration’s Justice Department, the United States and the Navajo Nation entered into a settlement agreement with two affiliated subsidiaries of Freeport-McMoRan, Inc, for the cleanup of 94 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land.

Under the settlement, valued at over $600 million, Cyprus Amax Minerals Company and Western Nuclear, Inc., will perform the work and the United States will contribute about half of the costs.

The settlement terms are outlined in a proposed consent decree filed January 17 in federal court in Phoenix, Arizona.

uranium mine site

Site of an abandoned uranium mine on Navajo land (Photo courtesy U.S. EPA)

With this settlement, funds are now committed to begin the cleanup process at over 200 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.

The work to be conducted is subject to oversight of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in collaboration with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.

“This remarkable settlement will result in significant environmental restoration on Navajo lands and will help build a healthier future for the Navajo people,” said Assistant Attorney General John Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“We appreciate the extraordinary commitment by Freeport’s affiliated subsidiaries to clean up 94 mines, and to achieve this settlement without litigation.”

“This historic settlement will clean up almost 20 percent of the abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation,” said Acting Regional Administrator Alexis Strauss for the EPA Pacific Southwest. “Cleaning up the uranium contamination continues to be a top environmental priority for our regional office.”

The Navajo Nation encompasses more than 27,000 square miles within Utah, New Mexico and Arizona in the Four Corners area.

The geology of the region makes the Navajo Nation rich in uranium, a radioactive ore in high demand after the development of atomic power and weapons at the close of World War II. Many private entities mined some 30 million tons of uranium ore on or near the Navajo Nation between 1944 and 1986.

The U.S. government, through the Atomic Energy Commission, was the sole purchaser of uranium until 1966, when commercial sales of uranium began. The AEC continued to purchase ore until 1970. The last uranium mine on the Navajo Nation shut down in 1986.

Many Navajo people worked in and near the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity to the mines and mills where ore was processed.  Kidney damage has been seen in humans and animals after inhaling or ingesting uranium compounds, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances.

Since 2008, federal agencies, including EPA, the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of the Interior, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Indian Health Service, have collaborated to address uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation.

The federal government has invested more than $130 million to address the legacy of abandoned uranium mines on Navajo lands.

EPA has compiled a list of 46 “priority mines” for cleanup and performed stabilization or cleanup work at nine of those mines. EPA’s cleanup efforts have generated over 100 jobs for Navajo citizens and work for several Navajo-owned businesses. This settlementincludes 10 priority mines and is expected to create many jobs for Navajo workers.

The settlement agreement resolves the claims of the United States on behalf of EPA against Cyprus Amax and Western Nuclear; of the Navajo Nation against the United States, and against Cyprus Amax and Western Nuclear; and of Cyprus Amax and Western Nuclear against the United States.

Cyprus Amax and Western Nuclear agree to perform removal site evaluations, engineering evaluations and cost analyses, and cleanups at the 94 mines.

In return for that commitment, the United States, on behalf of the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy, agreed to place $335 million into a trust account to help fund the cleanup.

In April 2014, the Justice Department and EPA announced in a separate matter that $985 million of a multi-billion dollar settlement of litigation against subsidiaries of Anadarko Petroleum Corp. will be paid to EPA to fund the clean-up of approximately 50 abandoned uranium mines in and around the Navajo Nation, where radioactive waste remains from Kerr-McGee mining operations.

EPA began field work with the proceeds from this settlement last year. In addition, the United States previously entered into two settlement agreements with the Navajo Nation to fund cleanups at 16 priority mines and investigations at an additional 30 mines for which no viable responsible private party has been identified.

The proposed consent decree, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court. See: www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees

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