EPA proposes including abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation in its Superfund Priorities List
In northeastern Arizona, the Cove Chapter of the Navajo Nation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a meeting last month on the EPA’s proposal to add nearby uranium mines to its Superfund National Priorities List.
“We're heading out of the Cove Chapter House and heading up,” says Kenyon Larsen, a remedial project manager for the EPA.
He’s one of the people responsible for the agency’s remediation and clean-up of hazardous waste sites across the United States.
The Lukachukai area uranium mines would be the first site on the Navajo Nation to be added to the Superfund list.
Local tribal officials say that waste from the mining area has contaminated groundwater and livestock in Cove and other nearby chapters.
On a clear morning in May, he and Cove Chapter President James Benally set out on an old dirt road, bound for the Lukachukai Mountain Mining District.
On our right we pass by a string of horses.
“Who brought their horses in?” Larsen says. “The little ones are so cute.”
“You can have them,” says Benally.
“Are they yours?
“The little ones? Oh, my gosh.”
“They’re feral horses.”
“Look at that little guy.”
We hear a strange noise coming from the jeep as we make our way up through the mountains.
“What you're hearing is our jeep singing,” Larsen says. “Yeah, she sings, that's her transmission making the sound.”
Cove is a small community near the foothills of the Lukachukai Mountains. As the jeep lumbers across washes the color of scarlet, Larsen describes the countryside stretched out in front of us.
“So we're leaving Indian Route 33 here off to the left to go up on a dirt road up to Mesa Five, and this is Cove Wash North,” he says. “Or no, this is main Cove Wash middle, the main wash that drains the mesas of the Lukachukai Mountains.”
Red rock cliffs stand in the distance, jutting out from seemingly endless expanses of sagebrush.
Uranium mining in the Lukachukai area began in the early 1950s as part of a post-World War II mining boom on the Navajo Nation, when the U.S. government was eager to create and stockpile nuclear weapons.
After the end of the Cold War, many of the uranium mines were simply abandoned – including some in the Lukachukai Mountains – instead of being safely closed off to the elements.
Dozens of these mines were tunneled into the sides of mesas in the mining district. And there are over 100 piles of exposed uranium mine waste scattered throughout the mountains.
Tribal community leaders like Benally say that wells in the region have been contaminated from a legacy of mining, leading to the contamination of livestock that graze nearby.
According to Benally, many in his community suffer from health issues related to past uranium mining activities.
"A lot of people within Cove, they have afflictions that are related to past uranium mining activities and the waste piles," he says. "You'll see different types of cancer: lung cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer."
In March, the EPA proposed adding the mining district to its National Priorities List, or NPL.
It would mean more money would be available for the community, and that several unremediated uranium mines would be dealt with.
It would also mean a public health assessment would be performed in the Cove community to determine the impacts of past uranium mining activities on residents’ health.
Many of these mining roads have not been maintained since their original use. Thickets of sage, juniper and wildflowers make finding the correct route to the mining sites difficult.
“So we've reached the top of the mesa – now we're above the salt wash member,” Larsen says. “And so it was mined underneath us, and on the top here the miners moved all the waste up and then carried it out on these roads.”
Larsen parks the jeep near the cliffside and we hop out.
“This, just this butte right here,” Benally says. “Right behind, that’s where our cattle graze during the summer. So, behind this other butte is where we had our sheep camp, so we’d either hoof it or we rode horses. And then there were times when we, my cousins and I, we got together and we rode horses all over this place.”
Benally says many of his constituents in Cove have sheep camps that move according to the seasons.
“People have winter camp, spring camp, summer camp, and fall camp,” he says. “And ours was behind that butte over here. And our cattle was over here.”
Residents of Cove were still relying on the Cove Wash watershed as a source of drinking water until about 20 years ago, when the area switched to a municipal water source.
Near the edge of the mesa, Larsen points to the ground.
“This is old trash from the miners,” he says.
We walk for a few more minutes before Benally motions us to stop.
“Even here, you can see some waste piles right there,” he says. “They slough off and then you have a drainage right here.”
Even though the EPA has proposed adding the mining district to the NPL, Benally says his community doesn’t just want the uranium waste to be buried or covered: they want the piles to be removed entirely.
“To be frank, they don't want any waste pile, period,” he says. “It doesn't matter whether it's designed or not. They just don't want any waste pile within the midst of their community.”
On the ride back, Benally says that he’s considering writing a letter to President Joseph Biden to ask him to dedicate more federal resources to the region, and that “one of his promises was that he would deliver environmental justice."
"Yeah, I was gonna ask him point blank: I said if these sites were within a populated area on the eastern seaboard they would be cleaned up every week for more than 75 plus years.”
The public comment period for the proposed Superfund site listing ends on June 28.
According to Larsen, it’s likely that the final decision whether or not to add the mining district to the NPL will be made in late September.
But before that happens, in July, Larsen says the EPA will begin to use new cleanup technology to remove contaminated soil from areas around Cove.