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Native Sun News: Tribes asked to identify abandoned uranium sites

Filed Under: Environment | National
More on: doe, native sun news, uranium

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Much of the Riley Pass area is off-limits indefinitely due to radiation health hazards. Courtesy/USFS

Feds ask tribes to help identify abandoned uranium mines
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

CAMP CROOK — Native American activists recently proposed language for a bill to create a moratorium on any new uranium mining until after abandoned sites are cleaned up, but the federal government isn’t sure where to start, so officials are calling for help.

“The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) is seeking stakeholder input on an abandoned uranium mines report to Congress,” the government said in announcing the opportunity.

The report, to be submitted no later than July, was mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, and requires consultation with affected tribes.

“Historical and current information is needed to perform surveillance and maintenance activities and will provide the framework to tell each site's story to future generations,” the Office of Legacy Management said.

Over the past year, the Office of Legacy Management has held meetings across the country. It has conducted fieldwork, and gathered documents from the archives of other governmental agencies. Among them are files from the Navajo Nation, the Laguna Pueblo and the Spokane Tribe.

A summary of the agencies’ cost data shows that the average expense to mitigate, or partially fix, a dangerous aspect of a uranium mine is $18,000, with the lowest price $2,000 and the highest $55,000 in 2014 dollars.

Remediation, or complete cleanup, costs appear highly variable, ranging from $215,000 to $205,000 per abandoned uranium mine, depending on the number and type of features being treated, according to the draft report.

Last August, project participants visited the abandoned uranium mines at what they dubbed the Black Hills Mining Area, or Edgemont Mining Area, surrounding the Dewey-Burdock site in extreme southwestern South Dakota’s Custer and Fall River counties, adjacent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Also in August, they visited what they called the Dakota Lignite Mining Area, or Slim Buttes Area, around the Riley Pass mine complex in the Cave Hills of extreme northwestern South Dakota’s Harding County, upstream from several of the state’s Indian reservations.

Both areas are chock full of sacred sites used for prayer ceremonies as identified by the Tribal Historic Preservation Officers of the seven bands of the Great Sioux Nation, which by treaty and federal law are heirs to the land at the old mines.

The state of South Dakota supplied the Legacy Management Office with records for 155 abandoned mine sites. The state had no known location on 22 of them.

Indian Country seeks moratorium on uranium mining
Field crews visited 84 abandoned uranium mines nationwide in order to compile what they considered a representative survey on the problem. In addition to the South Dakota mines, they went to the Tallahassee District of Fremont County, Colorado; the Gas Hills and Crooks Gap Districts of Wyoming; Grants Mineral Belt on the Navajo Indian Reservation and in New Mexico; the Lakeview District of Oregon; Lisbon Valley–Big Indian District in Utah; Yellow Cat District of Thompson Mining Area in Utah; Maybell District of Moffat County, Colorado, and the Uravan Mineral Belt in Colorado.

According to the draft report, the six states that have the most abandoned uranium mines within their boundaries are Arizona (416), Colorado (1,347), New Mexico (249), South Dakota (155), Utah (1,376), and Wyoming (319).

That means thousands of sites throughout Indian Country constitute threats to public health and welfare, according to the National Campaign to Clean Up Abandoned Uranium Mines.

Campaign organizers are looking for legislative sponsors for a proposed Uranium Exploration and Mining Accountability Act.

Taking into consideration that “there is no minimum threshold for radiation damage (no dose which is harmless), and radiation causes cancer and other organ damage, especially during fetal development and in young children,” the measure would direct the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to: “establish a range of reclamation options, including technical standards and associated unit costs for their implementation, to achieve exposure risk-reduction levels of 90, 95, and 99 percent” at the abandoned uranium mines.

The language instructs the commission to “place a moratorium on any processing or approval of new permits for uranium exploration or mining operations” until those directions are carried out.

It includes a provision that “any future permits issued by the commission shall be conditional on maintaining national compliance with the exposure threshold level established.”

The abandoned uranium mines are remnants of World War II and the ensuing “Cold War” Era, according to the DOE. At the time, the government bought uranium for atomic bombs, and the mining laws exempted miners from reclamation.

The proposed legislation would make the polluters pay. “The costs for clean-up of these abandoned sites have been externalized from the past uranium mining operations onto the general taxpayers, as have the public health and environmental costs of these toxic sites,” the draft says.

“The costs for reclamation of any new uranium exploration and mining operations must in the future be borne by the mining industry itself,” it states.

Powertech wants to reopen mines without cleanup
In the case of the Edgemont Mining Area, a corporation new to the Black Hills is applying for permits to reopen the abandoned mines without doing any cleanup of the existing waste. Powertech Corp., under the majority ownership of the Hong Kong-headquartered Azarga Resources Ltd., has failed so far in attempts since 2009 to obtain water and mining permits to extract and process uranium for the next 20 years.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe, as well as Native American non-profits Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) and Defenders of the Black Hills, which initiated the proposal for legislation, are among interveners in a federal administrative case to block the project. Evidentiary hearings on their arguments are set to begin Aug. 19 in western South Dakota.

The interveners also filed petitions with the state of South Dakota in 2008 to declare the lands proposed for mining by Powertech as “special, exceptional, critical or unique” due to more than 100 archaeological sites that date from pre-history, before settlers arrived. They include camp sites, burial grounds, and places where Native Americans have ceremonies now.

They failed to obtain the declaration, however 23 tribes that claim the proposed mining would occur on sacred ground are slowing completion of the final environmental impact statement necessary for the federal license for a “new radioactive source materials facility.”

Tribal representatives say they will not sign a required cultural preservation plan without a thorough inventory and analysis of the entire 10,500-acre Dewey-Burdock site.

EPA plans to issue a public notice in April soliciting comments and announcing open hearings on the company’s applications for Class 3 and 5 underground injection control (UIC) water permits, according to a Feb. 19 letter from Region 8 Water Program Director Sadie Hoskie.

Lawsuit to cleanup mess worth some $14.5 billion
In the case of Riley Pass, the Forest Service has been working for 25 years on reclamation of the mines abandoned by private companies and individual miners.

The estimated costs of its past and future cleanup on the portions of the site once operated by Kerr-McGee Corp. are $63 million.

The federal government has been able to recover $7.2 million from Kerr-McGee’s former subsidiary Tronox LLC under a bankruptcy settlement agreement.

The accord stipulates Tronox must pay $270 million, plus other considerations, for the 80 percent share of the cleanup considered its responsibility.

After years of wrangling, the government, the Navajo Tribe, 11 states and other creditors got an additional $5.15-billion court judgment in December against Kerr-McGee and its parent company Anadarko Petroleum Corp. for fraudulent conveyance.

“The Forest Service’s share of this amount would be more than sufficient to carry out the estimated cost of currently planned work at Riley Pass,” it said in a March 21 disclosure from its Sioux Ranger District, based in Camp Crook, near the abandoned mining area.

However, Anadarko could appeal, or it might instead enter into a settlement agreement with claimants, according to the district office.

The court found that by imposing on Tronox all of Kerr-McGee’s environmental liabilities without sufficient assets to satisfy those liabilities, Kerr-McGee and Anadarko demonstrated “pervasive evidence of both the intent to defraud creditors and a sophisticated plan to carry out that intent.”

The court reserved judgment on one pending bankruptcy issue that could increase Anadarko’s liability to $14.5 billion.

In a separate case, Kerr-McGee paid $1.38 million in a settlement with the family of its former laboratory technician Karen Silkwood after she was found to have been exposed to unusually high levels of plutonium at work.

The Supreme Court’s 1979 judgment for damages, following her death in a vehicle crash on the way to meet with a New York Times reporter and a union representative, inspired the Academy Award-nominated 1983 movie Silkwood about the murder of an environmental whistleblower.

Once adequate funds are in place at Riley Pass, several more years will probably remain before reclamation is completed at the Tronox bluffs, according to the Forest Service.

Sacred sites off-limits due to radioactive waste
Like many mines, Riley Pass and other nearby sites contain not only uranium but also other hazardous and radioactive substances, such as arsenic, molybdenum, thorium, radium and uranium.

The Custer National Forest has issued a special order closing access to the area “due to the human health, safety and environmental concerns related to elevated levels of these substances.”

The Sioux Ranger District has posted signs throughout the North Cave Hills, where ancient petroglyphs and modern ceremonial sites are now off-limits to humans.

The mines cover about 250 acres of high walls, pit floor, and spoils. Historical mining activities spread elevated concentrations of chemical and radionuclides throughout the soils and surface waters at the mining area, the Sioux Ranger District notes. “Storm events and wind readily disperse contaminants both onsite and offsite,” it says.

In 1989, the Forest Service built five sediment catchment ponds to reduce the transfer of eroded sediments to offsite lands and access roads at Riley Pass. Contractors periodically clean out the ponds and return eroded wastes back to mined areas.

The EPA has developed preliminary remediation goals intended to be protective of human health and the environment around the site. No such work has been done at Dewey-Burdock.

To submit information, questions, and comments, contact: Legacy Management Support Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management, 2597 Legacy Way, Grand Junction, CO 81503 or emaiI or call (866) 559-8316

(Contact Talli Nauman, NSN Health and Environment Editor at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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