The Navajo Nation is celebrating the hard-won “clean closure” of a uranium waste dumping ground that was overlooked during federal cleanup efforts in the 1990s. But tribal experts suspect there are more contaminated sites that fell through the cracks.
The Highway 160 Site, named for the road it borders, is just east of Tuba City, Arizona, which lies partly on the Navajo Nation and partly on Hopi land. It’s north of the now-closed Rare Metals uranium mill.
According to the Department of Energy, the Rare Metals Corporation and its successor, El Paso Natural Gas Company, operated the mill between 1956 and 1966 and processed about 800,000 tons of uranium ore. The main waste byproduct—sandy, low-level radioactive mill tailings—was sent as slurry to 33 acres of on-site evaporation ponds. In 1990, the Department of Energy conducted a cleanup effort of the mill under the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 (UMTRCA). UMTRCA reached its sunset in 1997.
But in the years that followed, stories trickled in from long-time residents of the area, former mill workers, and “people who are now adults that were children who tended livestock in the area,” Etsitty said. The stories suggested that the Highway 160 area—part of a Navajo family’s grazing land—was once used as a dumping ground for additional waste from the mill.
The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed the presence of the buried waste in 2003. But since UMTRCA’s authority had ended six years earlier, the Department of Energy (DOE) was reluctant to invest in another cleanup—unless the Nation could prove the site was related to the Rare Metals mill.
“We contracted with a forensic geologist and did technical reports,” Etsitty remembers. “We found physical materials that only came from the former Rare Metals uranium mill site. We had to basically obtain information and data and evidence at an irrefutable level. It was a fight.”
After five years of investigations and a small mountain of data, “we were finally able to convince DOE,” Etsitty said. “Then they were good enough to ask for and receive appropriations so we could do this cleanup.”
Etsitty said once the Nation and the DOE started working together, things went much more smoothly: “As much as we were adversaries initially, we’ve become cooperating partners.” And that may be a good thing moving forward—because he suspects more contaminated sites, sites that should have been identified as vicinity properties, fell through the cracks of federal cleanup efforts and are yet to be discovered.
There are four UMTRCA disposal areas on the Navajo Nation including the Rare Metals site, and Etsitty and his staff continue to investigate disposal cells at the other three.
“There are potential problems at each of these sites,” he said. “We’re still spending time and resources and following anecdotal evidence and going out and looking at specific areas.”