Infrastructure law funds Superfund cleanups, but not uranium mines on Indigenous lands

·5 min read

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will dole out $3.5 billion to clean up the most hazardous contaminated sites in the country, but so far, no Arizona sites are set to receive funding.

And some of the most polluted locations in the state, the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on Indigenous lands, are likely ineligible for the money.

The funding comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law, which passed last November and is considered the Biden administration’s top legislative achievement.

The first round of money will allocate $1 billion to clear the backlog of so-called orphaned sites on the National Priorities List. That list, part of the Superfund program, includes what the U.S. government considers the most contaminated sites in the country. The sites are nicknamed orphans because they haven't received any money for cleanup yet.

The orphaned list includes 49 sites, but only one is in the EPA’s Region 9, which covers most of the southwestern United States. Eighteen sites on the list are in Regions 1, 2 and 3, which cover the northeastern United States. Arizona doesn’t have any orphaned sites.

The second round of funding will spend the remaining $2.5 billion on accelerating cleanups at other sites on the National Priorities List. The EPA hasn’t released a list of which sites will receive funding from that pot of money yet.

In an email to The Republic, a spokesperson for EPA’s Region 9 said: “Due to how the process is structured, it is impossible to predict how the next $2.5 billion will be spent.”

Arizona has 9 sites included in the National Priorities List, including a site in Phoenix where the former electronics manufacturer Motorola released TCE and other chemicals into the groundwater, and the Tucson International Airport, where a number of activities contaminated the groundwater and soil with TCE.

Regulations exclude uranium sites

The hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on Indigenous lands, where residents have been waiting for the government to act for decades, will likely receive no funding from the Infrastructure bill because none are included on the National Priorities List.

Long-time environmental justice advocates have lobbied for more sites to be included on the list, specifically the abandoned uranium mines. They note the limitations of its selection process, which considers population density and thus leaves out rural Indigenous communities most often affected by uranium radiation.

The EPA said on its website that it chooses sites for the National Priorities List mostly based on its Hazard Ranking System score, which takes into account factors like the toxicity and quantity of the waste and people or sensitive environments affected by the waste’s release.

"EPA is currently evaluating sites in Arizona for future inclusion on the Superfund: National Priorities List (NPL)," a spokesperson for the EPA's Region 9 wrote in an email to The Republic. "Some sites in rural areas do not score high enough on the Hazard Ranking System for inclusion on the NPL because low human population nearby necessitates higher quantity and toxicity of wastes than in higher-population areas."

More than 500 uranium mines were abandoned in the Navajo Nation. leaving behind a legacy of polluted water, land and health impacts.
More than 500 uranium mines were abandoned in the Navajo Nation. leaving behind a legacy of polluted water, land and health impacts.

But even if a site has a high hazard score, it doesn’t guarantee immediate funding or even a spot on the National Priorities List. Some sites may have high scores, but wouldn't qualify for the list, depending on other factors.

The Navajo Nation and other tribes in Arizona have battled for decades to rid their lands of toxic waste from abandoned uranium mines. The U.S. government obtained much of its uranium from tribal lands during the Cold War.

Since then, none of over 500 abandoned uranium mines in Navajo Nation has been fully cleaned up. The EPA said questions about paying for the cleanup, as well as arguments over where to store the radioactive waste, have been major obstacles.

Toxic groundwater lies beneath Phoenix: A cleanup has been delayed for years

Activists say the government should pay

The U.S. government has maintained that taxpayers shouldn’t bear the burden of paying for cleanup of abandoned mine sites on tribal lands. Instead, negligent companies who left without cleaning up after themselves, or “potentially responsible parties,” should pay.

The government has secured nearly $1 billion in funding cleanup efforts on the Navajo Nation by suing companies that didn't properly clean up their uranium mines, according to the EPA Region 9 spokesperson.

In one settlement, the EPA recovered almost $1 billion to address over 50 mines for which they say Kerr McGee Corporation and its successor, Tronox, bear responsibility. The Navajo Nation received more than $40 million from that settlement.

Indigenous peoples have expressed frustration at the delayed cleanup process. Inhaling and ingesting uranium can cause cancers and kidney disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control. One study from 2000 found that Navajo uranium miners had a lung cancer rate nearly 29 times that of Navajos who did not work in the mines. Research from the CDC shows uranium in babies born today.

A long-lasting issue: Abandoned uranium mines continue to haunt Navajos on reservation

Some Navajo leaders and advocates believe that securing cleanup funds through lawsuits has delayed the cleanup process, particularly since the mining occurred decades ago and it’s difficult to pinpoint a potentially responsible party.

Activists have urged the government to pay instead, arguing the government was the sole customer of uranium mining from 1944-1971 and changed permitting to make it easier to mine uranium on tribal lands.

A sign warns people of an abandoned uranium mine. Down the road from the contaminated mine are homes of the families who live in the community.
A sign warns people of an abandoned uranium mine. Down the road from the contaminated mine are homes of the families who live in the community.

“This extreme devastation of the environment, which is essentially permanent in terms of radioactive pollution, is contingent upon the outcomes of court settlements,” said Klee Benally, a Diné who has spent years advocating for cleanup of abandoned uranium mines. “Not because the government is directing resources to clean up the mess that they made, or the messes that they permitted.”

Zayna Syed is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow her reporting on Twitter at @zaynasyed_ and send tips or other information about stories to zayna.syed@arizonarepublic.com.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Superfund money won't help old Navajo uranium mine sites