Cleanup plan for abandoned US mine

03 October 2011

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced a plan to clean up the Northeast Church Rock Mine - the largest and highest priority abandoned uranium mine on Navajo land.


The Northeast Church Rock mine was operated by United Nuclear Corporation as a uranium ore mine between around 1967 and 1982. It included an 1800-foot (550-metre) deep shaft, waste piles and several surface ponds. The mine adjoins a uranium mill site.


Northeast Church Rock Mine
The Northeast Church Rock mine site (Image: United Nuclear Corp)


Under EPA oversight and in conjunction with the Navajo Nation’s own environmental protection agency, General Electric conducted two previous cleanups at the site to deal with residual contamination, including the removal and rebuilding of one building in 2007, and the removal of over 40,000 tonnes of contaminated soil in 2010.


The latest cleanup effort will involve the removal of some 1.4 million tonnes of radium- and uranium-contaminated soil, which will be placed in a lined, capped facility. The multi-year cleanup - which will be conducted in several phases - will allow unrestricted surface use of the mine site for grazing and housing.


New Mexico environment secretary David Martin said, "Consolidating the waste into one repository will return the land to the Navajo Nation for their traditional use." He added, "The cleanup will also ensure long-term stewardship to protect public health and the environment."


Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, commented: "A perfect remedy is difficult to design, and in this case every stakeholder can be proud of their input into the remedy. I look forward to the cleanup and putting people to work restoring our lands."


The Navajo Nation is a semi-autonomous Native American-governed territory covering over 27,000 square miles (71,000 km2), occupying all of north-eastern Arizona, the south-eastern portion of Utah, and north-western New Mexico. It is the largest land area assigned primarily to a Native American jurisdiction within the USA.


Between 1944 and 1986, nearly four million tonnes of uranium ore were mined from Navajo land under leases with the Navajo Nation. Over 500 abandoned uranium mines now exist on the land. Since 1994, the EPA's Superfund Program has provided technical assistance and funding to assess potentially contaminated sites and develop a response. At the request of the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, in October 2007 the EPA developed a coordinated five-year plan to address uranium contamination in consultation with Navajo Nation EPA.


Researched and written

by World Nuclear News