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Why did it take so long for the Navajo Nation to secure a Superfund designation?

Waste from 40 years of uranium mining has contaminated watersheds across the reservation
Navajo miners work at a Kerr-McGee uranium mine in Cove, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation on May 7, 1953. The area around Cove is included in the first Superfund site on the Navajo Nation, which unlocks federal money to clean up toxic mine waste. (Associated Press file)

COVE, Ariz. – James Benally has been waiting a long time.

He is the president of the Cove Chapter on the Navajo Nation, a local government subdivision that sits along the state line, just over the border in Arizona from New Mexico, south of the Four Corners monument.

Beginning in 1949, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission purchased millions of tons of uranium mined on the Navajo Nation as the United States raced to stockpile nuclear weapons during the Cold War. By the time the mining stopped in 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore had been extracted from the reservation.

Cove was ground zero, the first place where the critical resource was discovered on Navajo lands. And it was in Cove that officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this month that the Lukachukai Mountains Mining District, which surrounds the small town, had been added to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites.

It was a designation for which Benally and many of his colleagues had been asking for years.

Navajo Nation Cove Chapter President James Benally called the designation of the Lukachukai Mountains Mining District Superfund Site “historic” and “monumental” at an event March 15 at the Cove Chapter House in Cove, Arizona. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

“Anybody that would listen to me, I would talk to,” he said at the announcement at the Cove Chapter House on March 15.

In 1990, the federal government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which acknowledged the harmful effects of working in and around uranium mines.

But it was another 34 years before the government added some of those mines to the National Priorities List to fund a cleanup. And despite the historic step, many Navajo stakeholders are wary that the remediation will be prompt.

A ‘decimated’ population

Benally’s father worked in uranium mines – Mesa I, Mesa II and Mesa V, to name a few.

“Not only my dad, but a lot of our menfolk in Cove,” he said. “… They weren’t aware of how uranium mining would impact them.”

That impact has yet to be fully understood, although it has been linked to various forms of cancer and internal organ dysfunction. Anecdotally, Benally knows what happened.

The men of Cove were “decimated,” he said.

“Whenever they blasted a headwall, all that dust settled on them,” he said. “And they would go home like that, Uranium dust settled on their clothing.”

Many of his constituents in the once-healthy community need dialysis to treat kidney failure or radiation treatment for cancer, both ailments linked to uranium exposure.

“Every family that you will encounter in Cove – all the menfolk are gone,” Benally said.

Women laundered clothing laden with radioactive dust. The same dust contaminated the water that children played in and livestock drank. Today, more than 800,000 cubic yards of mine waste remains in piles and scattered throughout the mining district.

The federal government has pursued settlements with the companies responsible for the mining over the contamination. The first major victory came in 2014, with the Tronox Settlement. An agreement with Tronox secured nearly $1 billion for the cleanup of 42 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation operated by the company’s predecessor, Kerr-McGee.

The tribe received $44 million from the settlement.

“It wasn’t enough,” Benally said with defiance in an interview with The Durango Herald.

The Lukachukai Mountains Mining District near Cove, Arizona, includes approximately 88 mines, over 120 waste piles and covers about 20 square miles. (Courtesy of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
Securing a spot on the National Priorities List

“Every time U.S. EPA came through those doors, I was right there in front of them,” Benally recalled, as the heads of EPA officials around the room nodded in nostalgic agreement.

Getting the region listed a Superfund site had become his mission, and he was dedicated.

The problem lay in the EPA’s bureaucratic designation process, officials say.

EPA uses a rigid Hazard Ranking System to determine whether sites will receive a Superfund listening and the corresponding resources. But Cove’s population is sparse – just 430 people in 2010.

“We don't have the population density – that's big,” said EPA’s Region 9 Administrator Martha Guzman. “When you don't have the density, some of the correlating exposure levels just are harder.”

“The federal government neglected their role for half a century,” said EPA Region 9 Administrator Martha Guzman. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

Kenyon Larsen, one of the site’s remedial project managers with the EPA, began to strategize how to increase the HRS score such that Cove could secure a spot on the NPL.

Benally speaks highly of Larsen and his dedication to addressing the mine waste in and around Cove. But he speaks with some bitterness about the fact that for years, the toxic contamination on the Navajo Nation was not a federal priority.

“We really didn't have the support and efficacy to do the cleanup,” Benally said.

But Larsen’s involvement, which began in 2020, marked a turning point. Until then, Benally said, the chapter didn’t have the right people advocating on their behalf.

It was natural and cultural resources that ultimately bolstered the case for a Superfund listing. The Lukachukai Mining District is the home to several sensitive species, including the federally threatened Mexican spotted owl.

The presence of the threatened owl “helped a lot,” Guzman said.

The Lukachukai Mountains Mining District includes approximately 88 mines, over 120 waste piles and covers about 20 square miles.

Remediation in a timely fashion

Now that it has secured a national priorities designation, some Navajo leaders are still wary that the cleanup will be swift.

The designation is a “guarantee” that the site is a national priority, EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Clifford Villa told tribal leaders in Cove. But Amber Crotty, a delegate of the Navajo Nation Council, was skeptical.

“The federal government continues to ask us for data to isolate the incidents, to make us prove what is happening in our community,” said Amber Crotty, a delegate of the Navajo Nation Council. “And so I want to say to the state, that’s not how you build trust.” (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

The EPA has made many promises – but the follow-through has not always occurred, she said. The U.S. holds a trust obligation to Indigenous tribes, which Crotty invoked before federal officials.

“The federal government continues to ask us for data to isolate the incidents, to make us prove what is happening in our community,” Crotty said. “And so I want to say to the state, that’s not how you build trust.”

Instead, she called on the EPA to rebuild trust, which is “always going to be through action.”

But Guzman is more optimistic that things will change. The district includes 11 sites for which responsible parties have not been identified or held to account. The Superfund designation means federal dollars can be used to clean up those sites.

“From where I sit, this is the most important thing because it gives us the ability to clean everywhere, and not just where we have evidence to get a responsible party to pay,” she said.

The administrator is not blind to the federal government’s past failures, and is rather blunt in characterizing them.

“The federal government neglected their role for half a century,” Guzman said.

The first Superfund site on the Navajo Nation contributes to the fulfillment of the federal government’s federal trust obligation, she added, which squares with president Joe Biden’s commitment to environmental justice.

But Guzman recognizes that trust comes through action.

And although President Benally said it “warms my heart that this is finally, finally going to happen,” he ended his speech with a pointed request.

“We’d like to see these remediation activities carried out in a timely fashion – not 40 years from now,” he said.


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