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Updated Apr 3, 2014 - 3:58 pm

Settlement nets Navajo Nation $1B for uranium cleanup

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — More than $1 billion is going to help clean up
abandoned uranium mines that have left a legacy of disease and death on the
Navajo Nation.

The money is part of a $5.15 billion settlement that the federal government
reached with Anadarko Petroleum Corp. for the cleanup of thousands of
long-contaminated sites nationwide. The settlement announced Thursday resolves a
legal battle over Tronox Inc., a 2005 spinoff of Kerr-McGee Corp. that Anadarko
acquired in 2006.

Kerr-McGee once operated about 50 uranium mines in the Lukachukai Mountains of
northeastern Arizona near Cove and a uranium mill in Shiprock, N.M. Uranium
waste was thrust over the mountain side and carried by rainwater across the land
used by hikers, anglers, medicine men and Navajo shepherds, said David Taylor,
an attorney with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.

“I have a feeling of just deep appreciation for the Navajo children, who
literally are playing in uranium piles today who aren’t going to have to do that
in the future,” he said.

But, Taylor added: “The path before us is still monumental. We’ve got a good
start now, and I hope we can build on that.”

The more than $1 billion will address about 10 percent of the tribe’s inventory
of abandoned uranium mines. About 4 million tons of uranium ore were mined from
the reservation from 1944 to 1986 for wartime weapons. Many families still live
among the contamination and fear drinking water polluted by uranium.

Navajo President Ben Shelly said the settlement will ease some concerns about
public health.

About $1 billion of the money benefiting the Navajo Nation will be administered
by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco. Of that, nearly
$87 million will be set aside specifically for two sites known as the Quivira
Mines near Church Rock, N.M. The Navajo Nation separately will receive $43
million to address Shiprock mill, where uranium ore was processed near the San
Juan River, the EPA said.

The federal government has been working for years with the Navajo Nation to
address the more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation, but
they’ve been hampered by the costs of remediation and the unwillingness of some
companies to pay for cleanup of their previous operations.

Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s regional administrator in San Francisco, said
federal agencies spent about $100 million as part of a five-year cleanup plan.
The EPA is drafting a second, five-year plan, but the budget is expected to be
much less, he said.

“The mess that’s on the Navajo Nation in terms of abandoned uranium mines
should never have been put there, and all of us have been waiting for this day
to start to make a big dent in the cleanup,” he said.

The mountainous sites near Cove rarely are visited, but a network of roads
established for mining, logging and firewood gathering provide access. Tribal
officials say Navajo medicine men gather plants and herbs for prayer and healing
purposes from the mountains, and families set up summer camps where sheep graze
nearby.

The federal government initially sought $25 billion to clean up decades of
contamination at dozens of sites. A U.S. bankruptcy judge in New York ruled in
December that Kerr-McGee improperly shifted its environmental liabilities to
Tronox and should pay between $5.15 billion and $14.2 billion, plus attorneys’
fees.

Anadarko CEO Al Walker said the settlement eliminates the uncertainty of the
dispute.

Blumenfeld said Navajos have struggled with the legacy of uranium contamination
for too long. He said dozens of tribal members already have been trained in how
to properly dispose of and transport contaminated waste, and they soon can be
put to work.

“It’s one of those environmental justice burdens that has garnered a lot of
attention and, thankfully, now it’s garnering a lot of money,” Blumenfeld said.

___

Associated Press Writers Eric Tucker and Dina Cappiello in Washington, D.C.,
contributed to this report.

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