A settlement between the U.S. government and the Navajo Nation is expected to clear the way for cleanup work to continue at abandoned uranium mines across the largest American Indian reservation in the U.S.
The Associated Press reported that the target includes 46 sites that have been identified as priorities due to radiation levels, their proximity to people and the threat of contamination spreading. Under terms of the agreement, cleanup will begin at 16 sites while evaluations are planned for another 30 sites. Studies will be done at two more to see if water supplies have been compromised.
The agreement announced by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) settles the tribe's claims over the costs of engineering evaluations and cleanups at the mines.
The federal government has already spent $100 million to address abandoned mines on Navajo lands and a separate settlement reached with DOJ last year was worth more than $13 million. However, estimates for the future costs for cleanup at priority sites stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden, who is with the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said the latest settlement marks the second phase of ensuring cleanup of mines that pose the most significant public health risks.
“Addressing the legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands reflects the commitment of the Justice Department and the Obama administration to fairly and honorably resolve the historic grievances of American Indian tribes and build a healthier future for their people,” Cruden said in a statement.
Navajo leaders have been pushing for cleanup for decades, specifically for the removal of contaminated soils and other materials rather than burying and capping the waste on tribal land. Since 2005, they've had a ban on uranium mining.
Over four decades, some 4 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from mines on Navajo lands with the federal government being the sole purchaser from the 1940s through the 1960s, when commercial sales began. The mining operations stretched from western New Mexico into Arizona and southern Utah.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials say in the last decade, the agency has remediated nearly four dozen homes, conducted field studies at all 523 mines on Navajo lands and provided safe drinking water to more than 3,000 families. Stabilization and cleanup work also has been done at nine abandoned mines.