Navajo Reservation

Ruling could provide funds to clean up uranium sites

By Olivier Uyttebrouck / Journal Staff Writer
PUBLISHED: Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 12:05 am


James Smith, 70, surveys five former Kerr-McGee uranium mine sites near his home in Cove, Ariz., where Smith, his three brothers, and hundreds of other Navajos tunneled into the rugged Lukachukai Mountains. Radioactive material hauled from the mines remains piled in populated areas of Cove while officials decide how to dispose of abandoned mine waste. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

James Smith, 70, surveys five former Kerr-McGee uranium mine sites near his home in Cove, Ariz., where Smith, his three brothers, and hundreds of other Navajos tunneled into the rugged Lukachukai Mountains. Radioactive material hauled from the mines remains piled in populated areas of Cove while officials decide how to dispose of abandoned mine waste. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

CHURCHROCK – Decades of uranium mining during the Cold War have transformed Annie Benally’s life-long home on the Navajo Nation into a moonscape of giant earthen piles contaminated by radioactive dirt and rock pulled up from deep shafts.

Evidence of past efforts to remediate contamination pock the landscape along Redwater Pond Road near Churchrock, where Kerr-McGee Corp. and United Nuclear Corp. operated two of the nation’s largest uranium mines in the 1970s and 1980s.

Navajo Nation officials say they are hopeful that a ruling handed down in December by a New York judge will provide up to $2.4 billion to clean up the former Churchrock Quivira mine and 48 other abandoned uranium mines once operated by Kerr-McGee Corp. in New Mexico and Arizona.

In his ruling, the judge found that Kerr-McGee had fraudulently shifted its liabilities to another company to make Kerr-McGee a more valuable to a buyer.

The judgment would also provide funds to clean up the Shiprock Mill, a massive uranium processing site in Shiprock.

Benally said years of patchwork efforts to fix uranium contamination at Churchrock mine sites have made her and her neighbors skeptical that a lasting solution is forthcoming.

Current plans call for Redwater Pond Road residents to move from the area in 2018 while contamination at one of the two giant mine sites is moved off site.


Annie Benally, a resident of the Redwater Pond Community north of Churchrock, stands in front of the abandoned Churchrock Quivira mine, where a pile containing an estimated 100,000 cubic yards of mine waste looms over homes in the Navajo community. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Annie Benally, a resident of the Redwater Pond Community north of Churchrock, stands in front of the abandoned Churchrock Quivira mine, where a pile containing an estimated 100,000 cubic yards of mine waste looms over homes in the Navajo community. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“I don’t think it’s ever going to happen,” said Benally, a member of the Redwater Pond Community Association. “They do a little bit at a time. They just keep playing with us.”

Benally points to a gravel road made of tons of discarded uranium ore. Two years ago, a private company tried to clean up the contamination.

“They anticipated they were going to take two or three feet of waste, but they kept digging and digging and digging pretty soon we had a big ditch,” she said. “It was all contaminated.”

Benally and her neighbors believe the dust that blows off the huge piles of radioactive material left from more than a decade of mining activity in the 1970s and 1980s is causing health problems for residents and their children.

Billions at stake

On Dec. 12, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper of the Southern District of New York ruled that Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the parent company of Kerr-McGee Corp., owes damages ranging from $5.2 billion to $14.2 billion to the Navajo Nation, at least a dozen states and other claimants across the U.S. stuck with environmentally damaged sites.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates the Navajo Nation’s share of the judgment at between $880 million and $2.4 billion.

“A billion dollars would help,” said Dave Taylor, an attorney and uranium specialist for the Navajo Nation’s Department of Justice. “It would really get us off the ground.”

A lack of funding has for decades stalled the reclamation of abandoned uranium mines and mills that shed radioactive waste into the environment, he said.

About 20 percent of the final settlement amount will be paid to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pay for cleanup at 50 former Kerr-McGee sites in New Mexico and Arizona, including the Shiprock Mill, Taylor said.

The precise amount of the settlement will be determined by ongoing litigation in the bankruptcy case.

Anadarko Petroleum did not respond to requests for comment this week. The company has said it contests Gropper’s ruling and plans to appeal.

John Hueston, a Los Angeles attorney who represents the Navajo Nation and other claimants, said he expects litigation to continue for at least a year.

“I can say on behalf of the beneficiaries that they are willing to stand and fight because of what’s at stake and because of the size of the victory,” Hueston said in a phone interview.

The scope of Kerr-McGee’s uranium operations on the Navajo Nation offers a variety of monumental cleanup challenges.


The U.S. Department of Energy operates this evaporation pond just south of the former Shiprock Mill to prevent uranium contaminated water from seeping into groundwater. The iconic Shiprock looms in the background. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The U.S. Department of Energy operates this evaporation pond just south of the former Shiprock Mill to prevent uranium contaminated water from seeping into groundwater. The iconic Shiprock looms in the background. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Kerr-McGee processed uranium ore at its massive Shiprock Mill, where a 1.5 million-ton tailings pile looms over the San Juan River, within a few miles of Shiprock’s 8,000 residents.

And about 40 miles southwest of Shiprock, near Cove, Ariz., miners tunneled more than two-dozen Kerr-McGee mines into the rugged Lucachukai Mountains, some in areas so remote that access by vehicle is difficult and dangerous.

Overburden from the mines was trucked into the valley where today it forms huge piles in the Cove community.

Alberta Tsosie, whose father died at age 45 after working in the mines, contends that water from the mines flows into the valley, poisoning livestock and wildlife.

Absent from the list of Kerr-McGee claimants is the state of New Mexico, Heuston said. He does not know if New Mexico tried to file a claim in the bankruptcy.

Kerr-McGee operated uranium mining and milling operations at Ambrosia Lake near Grants from the late 1950s until 1988, according to a corporate prospectus. Activists say they urged state officials in 2009 to file a claim in the bankruptcy to seek funding for remediation at the site.

Bill Brancard, general council for Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said that Rio Algom became the owner of the Ambrosia Lake operations when it purchased the Quivira Mining Corp. from Kerr-McGee in 1989. State officials determined that “there were no significant liabilities out there associated with Kerr-McGee under our laws,” Brancard said Friday.

U.S.: Company committed fraud

The New York bankruptcy case centers on a chemical company called Tronox Inc., which was spun off by Kerr-McGee Corp. in 2005.

In 2006, Kerr-McGee was acquired by Anadarko Petroleum.

Tronox Inc. filed for bankruptcy in January 2009. As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, Tronox and the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Kerr-McGee.

The lawsuit alleged that Kerr-McGee fraudulently transferred to Tronox billions of dollars of environmental liabilities to increase Kerr-McGee’s value to Anadarko.

In his ruling, Gropper agreed that Kerr-McGee’s actions were fraudulent and left Tronox insolvent.

“Kerr-McGee was trying to cleanse their crown jewel assets – the oil and gas assets – of all the environmental liabilities, which made Kerr-McGee an unattractive acquisition up to that point,” Hueston said.

The 50 Navajo Nation sites included in the Tronox settlement include the Shiprock Mill site, which contains an estimated 1.5 million tons of tailings left by the processing of uranium ore, Taylor said. The remaining sites are abandoned uranium mines.

The sites included in the Tronox settlement comprise only a fraction of the estimated 521 abandoned uranium mines scattered across the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Utah, he said.


Cora Perry with her one year old Malichi Bryan walking in her front yard which sits next to the former site of a mill in Shiprock. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Cora Perry with her one year old Malichi Bryan walking in her front yard which sits next to the former site of a mill in Shiprock. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Cleanup scope unknown

The scope and cost of the cleanup will depend on the volume of material found at the sites, which remains largely undetermined, Taylor said.

“You never know what the final volume is until you get out there and start digging almost,” he said.

A five-year plan completed last year provided an “initial rough survey” of abandoned uranium mines in Navajo country, with some estimates about the amount of material they contain, he said.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re still pretty clueless what the total volume of contaminated materials is in Navajo Indian country,” Taylor said. “The biggest problem we have out here is trying to get a grasp on the volume, because volume drives cost.”

Before cleanups can begin, officials first must characterize the sites, which will require years of work, Taylor said.

“You can’t jump in and start digging dirt anywhere,” Taylor said. Even if funds were available tomorrow, he said, “it will be several years before the cleanups on those sites really will get into gear.”

The EPA, the Navajo Nation, and corporations have performed some remediation at several sites. The Churchrock Quivira Mine site is further along than any of the Tronox sites, Taylor said. “Even there, there has been no final decision about what the remedy will be,” he said.

But Taylor said the Navajo Nation and the EPA believe that a final settlement in the Tronox case will allow sites to be fully cleaned up.

“Planning is not going to consume all that money,” he said. “We’re going to clean up sites and get them completed if we get that money.”

The Tronox sites include 11 mines in the nation’s Eastern Agency, located northwest of Grants, he said.

The Eastern Agency sites include the Churchrock Quivira mine, located about 15 miles northeast of Gallup, which contains about 100,000 cubic yards of contaminated material, Taylor said.

The remaining 38 mines are located in the Navajo Nation’s Northern Agency, which straddles the Arizona-New Mexico border. Of those, 10 mines lie in New Mexico and 28 in Arizona, including the Cove area mines, he said.
 

 

 

Dead Baby found on the Navajo Reservation

Resident Franklin Mose peers into a culvert where a 13-month-old child was found Jan. 31 in Crystal. A mother and her child were left near the culvert late at night Jan. 30 after the mother got into a fight with a woman with whom she was riding in a truck, according to the woman’s uncle. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Jasper Peshlakai stands In front of his home atop a hill near Crystal on Thursday, recounting the story his niece told him about the niece’s kicking a mother and her 13-month-old child out of her truck. The child was found dead the next morning in a culvert. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Longtime Crystal resident Jerry Kee considers a reporter’s question in his home Thursday. Kee said a Navajo Nation police officer questioned him about the whereabouts of the Peshlakai family, who live near him, in connection with the child’s death. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Longtime Crystal resident Jerry Kee considers a reporter’s question in his home Thursday. Kee said a Navajo Nation police officer questioned him about the whereabouts of the Peshlakai family, who live near him, in connection with the child’s death. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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CRYSTAL – Jasper Peshlakai’s niece stumbled through the door of his small house on top of a hill in the middle of the forest late at night last week, smelling of alcohol and nursing deep scratches down her arms.

 

Jasper Peshlakai stands In front of his home atop a hill near Crystal on Thursday, recounting the story his niece told him about the niece’s kicking a mother and her 13-month-old child out of her truck. The child was found dead the next morning in a culvert. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The unexpected Jan. 30 visit from his niece, whom he hadn’t seen in around five years, became even more alarming when she told him that she had abandoned a woman and her 13-month-old child a couple miles down the hill, Peshlakai said. The niece told Peshlakai that she and the woman had gotten into a fight while drinking and driving on the way to visit her uncle, so she kicked the woman and the child out of her truck and continued up the hill to her uncle’s house.

Peshlakai said he urged his niece to go back down the hill and get the mother and her toddler.

“But she just kept changing the subject,” Peshlakai told the Journal on a chilly afternoon this week in the small Navajo Reservation town. “Next thing I know, she was tired and went to bed.”

Shortly after 7 a.m. the next morning, Jan. 31, the body of a young child was found in shallow, icy water in a metal culvert at the bottom of the hill. Most Crystal residents politely declined to say what they knew of the death, but several others described seeing a parade of local and federal law enforcement combing through the scene that morning, in addition to a woman seated on the dirt road, distraught and wrapped in blankets.

The FBI, which said it is continuing its investigation, has not released the names of the mother or her child. FBI officials said they have questioned the mother and are waiting for the results of an autopsy from the state Office of the Medical Investigator. A Navajo Nation Police Department captain, reached Friday, said he was not familiar with the case, and a Navajo Nation Department of Justice official said that the case will likely be prosecuted federally.

The cause of death has not been released, and it’s unclear whether the mother was ever arrested or just questioned.

A spokesman for the hospital at Fort Defiance told the Navajo Times that the mother of the victim was treated at the hospital’s emergency room. However, an emergency room employee reviewed hospital logs and told the Journal that the hospital had no patients the morning of Jan. 31 who could have been the mother. The hospital spokesman did not return repeated calls for comment.

Peshlakai said he told investigators about his niece’s visit and what she had said. He said the they were very interested in her whereabouts, but he didn’t know what to tell them. She has no phone, he said, and he doesn’t know where she has been living for the past five years. She was gone when he returned from a day trip to Gallup on Jan. 31, he said.

He also said he has no idea where his niece met the mother or where they were coming from, and he didn’t know whether the two were related or even friends. Temperatures in nearby Navajo, N.M., that night hovered just above freezing.

When asked whether he felt any blame or guilt about the child’s death, he said he has been running through scenarios in his mind since that night – but he just doesn’t know yet. He also said he doesn’t have a phone.

All of the Crystal residents who were willing to talk about the death said they don’t know who the mother was or where she was from. In the 2,000-population town, residents said, it’s pretty clear when someone is an outsider.

Word about the child’s death spread quickly through the town that morning.

Jacey McCurtian, president of the Crystal Chapter, told residents in a community meeting Jan. 31 not to speak of the case as the investigation runs its course, residents said. About a dozen residents approached by the Journal in the Crystal senior center and in remote homes dotting the hills in the area declined to comment about the death, often saying first, “I can’t say anything,” then later, “I don’t know anything.”

But a few were willing to briefly discuss what they saw.

Longtime Crystal resident Franklin Mose said he walked near the culvert on the morning of Jan. 31 and spotted what he thought was a white, shining rock inside the culvert that runs below the dirt road that leads up the hill. He later returned to see a flurry of police activity and learned that he had actually seen the child’s naked body, face down in the water.

By Thursday of this week, when a Journal reporter and photographer walked by, the creek had mostly frozen over. There was no sign that a child had died there less than a week earlier.

Another Crystal resident, Jerry Kee, who was born in a hogan on the same hill and lived on the same plot of land his whole life, said a Navajo Police Department officer knocked on his door last week, asking for the Peshlakai house.

He said his son, on his way to Gallup early Jan. 31, saw the mother sitting at the scene wrapped in blankets while police investigated. He did not know her, but stopped to talk to her briefly.

Just because the woman and her child were likely not from Crystal doesn’t diminish the tragedy, Kee said.

“It’s kind of really shocking,” Kee said. “It’s heartbreaking for all of us. It’s just a little baby.”