GAO lauds uranium cleanup progress; tribe not so sure

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 8, 2014

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According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on the Navajo Nation's uranium contamination, the five federal agencies involved with the first five-year plan to address the legacy of uranium waste on the reservation have met or exceeded most of the plan's target goals.

The report, released Monday, reveals that the multi-agency plan is making progress on assessing contaminated mines, rebuilding contaminated structures, providing safe water supplies and cleaning up some high-priority sites.

The five federal agencies are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Indian Health Service.

The GOA conducted the study because four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from mines on the Navajo reservation for developing the U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile, and for 30 years thereafter the Navajo people have lived with the environmental and health effects of uranium contamination from this mining in the Cold War Era.

"The pervasive uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation is an American tragedy," said Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.-- "GAO's report confirms that federal agencies have made progress in addressing this shameful legacy but that a huge amount of work remains to be done.-- The federal government has a moral obligation to sustain its commitment to right this wrong."

Of its eight objectives, the GAO said the five agencies met six targets, including cooperating and working with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency. The GAO also said that the reasons why the agencies met the targets were primarily because additional federal and other resources were dedicated to these efforts, unlike in previous years.

"For example, from 2008 through 2012, EPA spent $22 million to test and replace contaminated houses compared with $1.5 million spent in the preceding 5 years," the GAO stated.

With regards to cleanup at the Northeast Church Rock mine and Tuba City Dump, the GAO reported that the federal agencies didn't meet these two main objectives outlined in the five-year plan, because EPA and BIA's estimated schedules for cleanup were "optimistic" and that EPA added additional work that extended the time frames.

"BIA experienced project and contract management challenges in conducting work at Tuba City Dump and did not always follow best practices when estimating the schedule for assessment work at the site," the GAO reported.

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