November 12, 2010
By Darla Martin Tucker
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – (www.lasierra.edu) The Geiger counter’s gamma radiation readings were jumping off the charts. La Sierra University biologist Lee Greer held the instrument, sweeping it over sand, rock and around the aging structure of an abandoned uranium mine in Arizona.
He wanted to know whether any radiation was seeping into the environment from the old open-pit Milestone uranium mine and mill, one of hundreds of defunct uranium operations scarring the deserts of Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element with nuclear properties. It is used as a fuel to produce nuclear power and weapons. Gamma radiation, the most powerful form of radiation, is a property of uranium and easily penetrates animals, people and objects. Exposure to it can lead to damaged DNA and cancer in humans.
Forgotten People, a nonprofit in Tuba City, Ariz. that advocates for Native Americans, worked with Greer during his latest visit to Navajo Nation the second week of September. While visiting the mine with representatives from the U.S. and Navajo environmental protection agencies and Forgotten People, Greer used the Geiger counter to check for radiation in pebbles, sand and objects near the shuttered Milestone operation. The tests proved positive; some readings on the counter were 100-fold greater than those taken in non-radiation-polluted areas. Cattle tracks could be seen near the mill and the Little Colorado River flowed nearby. An old metal marker affixed in concrete at the site carried the name Western Nuclear Inc. A New York University journalism student who accompanied the group captured the visit in a video documentary.
As a result of the group’s site visit and Greer’s tests, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 9 made assessment of the abandoned Milestone mine a priority. The agency was previously unaware of the abandoned site, said Will Duncan, an EPA Region 9 federal on-scene coordinator who accompanied the group to Milestone.
On Nov. 23, EPA Region 9 posted on its Web site a uranium contamination presentation Greer delivered during an agency community workshop in Tuba City the week of his trip to Navajo Nation. The presentation is available at the following link, under stakeholder presentations and Forgotten People: http://www.epa.gov/region9/superfund/navajo-nation/stakeholder.html.
Additionally, on Nov. 3, Greer gave two presentations on his uranium contamination research and participated in a panel discussion during the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver, Colo.
“The good news is there were not any structures where people were living that were close by,” Duncan said. He stated that the agency apprised site assessment personnel of the mine’s location. “It’s been made a priority,” he said last month. The EPA needs to determine whether the property is state land or on the reservation, “whether we take the lead” before any necessary cleanup can commence, he said. “If it’s on the reservation it could be an EPA and Department of Energy shared [assessment],” said Duncan.
A contractor screened the Milestone site earlier this month in the first of a series of assessments that involves radiological readings, photographs, GPS readings, location of homes and other data. While the site appears to have included a former uranium mill, further investigation and research of historical records is needed to verify the presence of the mill, said Jeff Inglis, EPA site assessment manager. “If it is confirmed, it is our expectation that we will inform the Department of Energy about it.”
EPA’s Region 9 office deals with environmental issues in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Pacific Islands subject to U.S. law and tribal nations.
According to the EPA’s Region 9 Superfund Web page, “from 1944 to 1986, nearly four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. Many Navajo people worked the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity to the mines and mills.” The region is pocked with 520 abandoned uranium mines and the EPA is participating in a five-year, multi-agency plan addressing contamination that may emanate from the old sites. Thus far the effort has resulted in 197 site screenings of abandoned mines, assessment of 199 structures and the completion of 14 replacement homes, according to an EPA report. The EPA aims to complete site screenings for all 520 abandoned uranium mines by the end of 2011 and clean up the highest risk mines. Along with other agency partners, it has also committed more than $22 million to provide drinking water infrastructure for more than 300 homes and to fund a pilot water-hauling program.