Tribes press government to clean up nuclear waste

(The Associated Press) - May 27 - By FELICIA FONSECA Associated Press Writer

> Two American Indian tribes say their pleas to have the federal
> government remove medical, uranium and other radioactive waste from
> their land near Tuba City have been ignored, and they want it cleaned
> up.
> Navajo and Hopi officials say the waste is contaminating the land
> and threatening water supplies.
> The Hopi Tribe has put the federal government on notice that it
> plans to sue over the cleanup. On Tuesday, the Navajo Nation filed a
> motion to intervene in a 2007 lawsuit that was brought against the
> federal government by the operator of a uranium mining mill where some
> of the waste originated.
> "I think everybody is starting to come together to accept the
> conclusion that there are contaminants affecting the shallow
> groundwater,"
> said Stephen Etsitty, director of the Navajo Environmental Protection
> Agency. "But we still have differences in what the tribes believe and
> what the U.S. government is willing to accept, how grave the situation
> is and what the remedy should be in the end."
> El Paso Natural Gas Co. claims that the federal government is
> responsible for the cleanup of the mill, the Tuba City open dump and
> another landfill north of U.S. Route 160. The mill and the U.S. 160
> landfill are on Navajo land. The 30-acre Tuba City dump is on Navajo
> and Hopi land.
> El Paso and its predecessor, Rare Metals Corporation, operated
> the mill from 1956 to 1966, processing about 800,000 tons of uranium
> ore.
> The mill is a federal processing site, and El Paso sought to have
> the landfills included in that designation. But a federal district
> court in March rejected the company's arguments, and it is appealing,
> El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley said Tuesday.
> Andrew Ames, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which
> is representing the federal agencies in the case, declined to comment,
> citing pending litigation.
> Congress appropriated $5 million earlier this year for cleanup of
> the U.S. 160 site.
> Cost estimates for cleaning up the Tuba City dump are much higher
> at
> $35 million.
> The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs operated the 30-acre Tuba City
> dump for nearly 50 years before it was closed in 1997, and part of it
> was covered up and fenced off. In 2000, the U.S. Environmental
> Protection Agency ordered the BIA to complete the closure, but the
> tribes said the BIA has failed to do so.
> They want the waste excavated and taken off tribal land.
> Water from an aquifer that lies directly below the unlined Tuba
> City dump is culturally significant to the Hopi Tribe, and residents
> rely on it for drinking and family subsistence farming, the tribe
> said.
> Meanwhile, the residents of Tuba City are continually exposed to
> hazardous and radioactive materials, Etsitty said.
> A few miles away at the mill site, uranium tailings and debris
> from demolished buildings are held in a disposal cell that the U.S
> Department of Energy monitors. The agency also has a groundwater
> remediation system in place.
> But the hazardous materials at the site continue to threaten
> groundwater because they were simply piled up and covered, rather than
> placed in a lined cell as is required of municipal waste, Navajo
> officials said.
> "There's never been any kind of formal closure in the current
> regulatory sense at that place," Etsitty said. "There's just been
> enough soil put on these past existing trenches to cover them up."
> Although the government has taken steps in recent years to
> demolish and remediate a number of uranium-contaminated structures on
> the Navajo Nation, the tribe said large-scale cleanup is needed at the
> source.
> "It's akin to rural America, where there are not a whole lot of
> threats to a big population," Etsitty said. "If these facilities were
> in a highly populated area, they'd be getting a lot of attention."