The Navajo Nation could net up to $1 billion for the cleanup of abandoned uranium mines and processing plants in Cove, Arizona and Shiprock, New Mexico, after a bankruptcy judge ruled that Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Kerr-McGee Corp. are liable for damages.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan L. Gropper handed down the decision on December 12, finding that “Anadarko and Kerr-McGee are liable to the plaintiffs for damages, setting a range for such damages between $5.1 and $14.1 billion,” the Navajo said in a statement on December 13. “The exact amount of damages will be determined after briefing by the parties.”
The ruling was a long time coming, Navajo leaders said.
“Our work in this bankruptcy case began when I was vice president and Louis Denetsosie was attorney general,” Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said in the statement. “Any funds resulting from this lawsuit are welcomed and long overdue.”
The damages amount will be shared among the large group of plaintiffs, which include the United States, 22 states, four environmental response trusts and a trust for the benefit of certain tort plaintiffs, the Navajo Nation explained in its statement.
The issue originated in 2005, when Kerr-McGee, a unit of Anadarko, spun off its chemicals business along with some old environmental liabilities into a company it named Tronox, according to Bloomberg News. Anadarko then bought Kerr-McGee’s oil and natural gas assets for $18 billion, Bloombert said. Meanwhile the new company, which made paint materials, was crushed under the weight of its environmental debts and declared bankruptcy in 2009, suing Anadarko and Kerr-McGee. The December 12 decision came out of the 2012 trial that resulted from the lawsuit, Bloomberg said.
The judge ruled that Anadarko and Kerr-McGee had acted with “intent to hinder” in the spinoff as a way to avoid their environmental liabilities, according to Reuters.
The abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation are just some of about 2,000 sites across the U.S. that are contaminated with various toxic compounds, radioactive waste and other chemicals that are compromising health for numerous communities. The plaintiffs are joined under a litigation trust, which was seeking $25 billion to clean up the U.S. sites, Reuters said.
Anadarko has said it will appeal the judge’s ruling, as well as his authority to issue it. That, plus litigation over the amount of the damage award, could mean years before the Navajo Nation and other plaintiffs see any actual damages, Reuters said in an analysis.
For the time being, the validation bestowed by the ruling is enough, Tsosie said in the Navajo’s statement.
“While we recognize the uncertainties of the appeal process and the long road that may be ahead of us, this is still a day of celebration for the Navajo Nation,” Tsosie said. “A federal judge has issued a ruling that could result in over a billion dollars being made available for cleaning up some of the uranium contamination from past uranium mining and processing on the Navajo Nation.”
Abandoned uranium mines have long been a problem on the reservation. Cleanup has been under way for years, but it is costly and the going is slow.