Navajo Nation Uranium Sites

Only 219 of the 524 abandoned uranium mines within or near the Navajo Nation boundaries are slated for remediation. 

The Navajo Nation, which has suffered economically from the downturn in coal generation and mining on and near its land and has been disproportionately affected by uranium mining, is reckoning with its energy legacy while making plans for a new energy future.

Tribal members recently gathered at Navajo Nation Council-sponsored hearings to discuss the impact of uranium mining and how to address lagging efforts by the federal government to remediate abandoned mines. Meanwhile, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in February traveled to Los Angeles to persuade the City Council to consider renewable-energy projects on the nation that could provide power to LA residents as Navajo Nation coal generation once did.

The 24th Council of the Navajo Nation on March 5 and 6 held the first two of four public hearings on the impact of uranium mining and related activities on Navajo lands. The goal of the hearings, Navajo Nation Speaker Seth Damon said in a news release, is to create a position statement on uranium remediation on the nation that will be signed by the Navajo Nation president for presentation to the federal government.

The council during its winter session debated Legislation 0380-19 regarding a uranium cleanup position statement. The bill's sponsor, Kee Allen Begay Jr., eventually withdrew it after several council members requested adding their communities to the list of those affected by the uranium industry on Navajo land.

Nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation from 1944 to 1996, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The uranium was used both for weapons manufacturing and in nuclear power plants. EPA coordinated with the Navajo Nation from 2008 to 2009 to complete filed work assessments of 111 mines to determine the extent and volume of contamination related to them. The agency secured funding or work commitments for 219 mines where detailed assessments were completed. The agency expects to complete engineering and cost analyses for these sites by 2024. Cleanup plans and designs are also scheduled to be finalized that year.

"The most important thing is the voices of the Navajo People," Begay said in the release. "Council is moving forward with these uranium public hearings because it's not just elected leaders that need to hear this, but federal administrators in Washington need to hear it, too," he added.

The council's Naabik'íyáti' Committee on Feb. 28 met with EPA officials to discuss a 10-year, $1.7-billion cleanup plan for 219 of the 523 abandoned uranium mines on or near the nation. The mines are being addressed through the "polluter pays" principle in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund law. The funds come from one of several settlements, but remediation work has yet to begin, and assessments on the other mines remain incomplete, the release said.

Prior to meeting with the EPA officials, staff from Damon's office met with multiple agencies, program leaders and the Diné Uranium Remediation Advisory Board to develop a legislative approach to push for more federal support of cleanup projects.

Members of the public spoke at the meeting about the loss of loved ones to cancer and other radiation-related ailments, contaminated water and land and, in one case, a home unknowingly built with radiation-contaminated stones.

"I'm the lead consultant for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Reauthorization of 2019," Phil Harrison, a former uranium miner and remediation worker, said at the March 5 hearing in Shiprock, New Mexico. "Uranium is eating us. Our kids and grandkids are going to ask us why we didn't fix it. Let's do something and take action today."

Other Navajo Nation officials are looking toward the tribe's energy future and its commitment to transition to renewable energy. Following its Feb. 19 meeting with Nez, the Los Angeles City Council by a unanimous vote directed the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power to explore the feasibility of Navajo Nation solar projects to serve its customers. LADWP is among the former owners of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station. Located on Navajo land, NGS served the region for more than 40 years before shutting down in November after its current owners deemed the 2,250-MW plant uneconomical (see CEM No. 1566).

LA City Council member Mitch O'Farrell, a member of the Wyandotte Nation, spearheaded the effort. "Through this initiative, we are working with our partners in the Navajo Nation to obtain cost-effective renewable energy," he said in a release issued by the City of Los Angeles.

LADWP is scheduled to report on the feasibility of the project at a City Council meeting within 30 days of the Feb. 19 vote. Meetings were originally scheduled for March 17, 18 and 20, but agendas have not yet been published. City Council President Nury Martinez in a March 12 tweet said the March 18 and 20 meetings were canceled in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti in a March 12 directive transitioned all city board and commission meetings open to the public to telephonic or video conferencing with interactive technology. LADWP could not confirm when its report would be presented to the City Council.

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Associate Editor - California Energy Markets

Abigail Sawyer grew up in northwestern New Mexico near two massive coal-fired power plants. She spent many hours gazing out the car window at transmission lines on family road trips across the Southwest and now reports on the region from San Francisco.