The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) Defense-Related Uranium Mines (DRUM) Program is joining a multiagency planning team to address uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation. The new 10-Year Plan is scheduled for completion by the end of 2020, and it identifies the next steps in addressing health and environmental risks associated with the legacy of uranium mining and milling on the Navajo Nation.
That legacy includes an estimated 523 abandoned uranium mines, four former mill sites, and numerous homes and water sources with radiation levels above natural background levels. Potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive gases and small particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.
The new 10-Year Plan builds upon two previous Five-Year Plans that covered 2008-2012 and 2014-2018. The plans trace their origins back to 2008, when Congress issued a directive for five federal agencies and various Navajo tribal agencies to create a Five-Year Plan to address uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation. The federal agencies involved in this effort, in addition to DOE, included the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of the Interior. Tribal entities included the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President, Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands/Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (AML/UMTRA) Department, Navajo Nation Department of Health, Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency (NNEPA), and Navajo Nation Department of Justice. DOE also works closely with the Hopi Tribe.
As the newest 10-Year Plan team member, the DRUM team brings expertise on abandoned uranium mines. DRUM is a partnership among DOE, federal land management agencies, state abandoned mine lands programs, and tribal governments to the assess the condition of mines that provided uranium ore to the federal government. As of November 2020, the DRUM team has identified and located nearly 1,700 abandoned uranium mines, conducted verification and validation (V&V) field visits to more than 1,200 mines on public lands, completed more than 1,000 final V&V reports that document site conditions and provides risk screening information, and developed more than 20 risk screening reports on groups of mines throughout the United States.
As part of the 10-Year Plan team, the DRUM team will continue V&V activities, as well as safeguard hazardous mine openings for approximately 293 abandoned uranium mine sites located on the Navajo Nation. EPA and NNEPA have already entered into enforcement agreements and settlements for 230 uranium mines, including the Tronox settlement. DRUM will work closely with EPA, Navajo Nation AML/UMTRA, and NNEPA toward completing a new DRUM V&V work plan and risk-screening process based on risk scenarios and assumptions that are appropriate for the Navajo Nation. It will also work collaboratively with Navajo Nation agencies to bolster their capacity to perform V&V, safeguard mining-related hazards, and provide long-term monitoring and maintenance of abandoned uranium mine sites.
DRUM participation in the 10-Year Plan is not LM’s first involvement with uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation. LM has been involved since the first Five-Year Plan, due to its long-term surveillance and maintenance responsibilities for the four former uranium mill sites on the Nation: Mexican Hat, Utah, Disposal Site; Shiprock, New Mexico, Disposal Site; Monument Valley, Arizona, Processing Site; and Tuba City, Arizona, Disposal Site.
While the past decade has witnessed significant progress toward addressing the legacy of the uranium industry on the Navajo Nation, there is still a lot of work to do. Together with all the 10-Year Plan partners, LM remains steadfast in its commitment to protecting health and the environment in tribal communities.