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Navajo Nation: Cleaning Up Abandoned Uranium Mines

Northeast Church Rock Mine

desert landscape with large construction equipment at workOverlooking the NECR Mine facing Northeast | Click to EnlargeThe Northeast Church Rock Mine (NECR) is a former uranium mine located at the northern end of State Highway 566 approximately 17 miles northeast of Gallup, NM in the Pinedale Chapter of the Navajo Nation. EPA is working with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency (NNEPA) to oversee cleanup work being done by the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC), a company owned by General Electric (GE).

Background

Site Facts

  • Northeast Church Rock Mine (NECR) is one of the largest mines on the Navajo Nation
  • NECR is the highest priority mine for cleanup due to its size as well as the location of the adjacent community
  • Approximately one million cubic yards of contaminated mine waste will be removed from the NECR Mine Site and consolidated primarily at the nearby UNC Mill Site.

Documents

United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) operated NECR from 1967 to 1982. During this time, they extracted approximately 3.5 million tons of ore, making this the second highest producing mine on the Navajo Nation behind the Kermac Mine No. 22 in the Ambrosia Lake Area. While the mine was in operation, the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division regulated the site. The uranium ore body is located up to 1,800 feet below grade at the NECR Mine Site. Therefore, the mining was conducted over 1,000 feet below the ground surface accessed through two main underground shafts. Other mining features included several vent holes, support buildings, roads and water extraction wells and treatment facilities. Portions of the site are located within an arroyo. Uranium ore from the UNC mine was processed at the adjacent UNC Mill Site, located on private property across Highway 566.

Cleanup Results to Date

To address contamination that had migrated off the NECR Mine Site into the adjacent residential area, EPA, in partnership with NNEPA, has overseen several time-critical actions where UNC removed approximately 200,000 tons of contaminated soil. This soil was brought back to the mine site waste pile which was regraded, covered, and vegetated to stabilize the contamination during the long planning process for the much larger cleanup of approximately 1.4 million tons of contaminated soil on the NECR Mine Site. EPA provides voluntary alternative housing for nearby residents during construction activities.

Current Design Progress

The cleanup plan for NECR includes moving approximately 1.4 million tons of contaminated soil to the nearby UNC Mill Site. This construction activity, including construction of a repository, or holding cell at the UNC/GE Site requires a lot of planning that takes place during the design phase of the project.

A design review team has been formed to coordinate the review process among the various federal, state, and tribal agencies. The design review team consists of EPA Regions 6 and 9, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NNEPA, New Mexico Environmental Department (regulatory agencies), and the Department of Energy. The team also includes a representative from the community assisted by a technical support representative from the Technical Assistance Services for Communities contract administered by EPA.

The design of the NECR cleanup was completed in 2018 and approved by USEPA for submission to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as part of a license amendment request.

Next Steps: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensing

After the permanent repository for mine waste from NECR was designed, in September 2018, UNC/GE submitted a request (license amendment) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the repository. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must approve the request before construction can begin. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates the license amendment decision will be completed in 2022.

Community Involvement

Site Contact

EPA Remedial Project Manager
Sara Jacobs (jacobs.sara@epa.gov)
(415) 972-3564

EPA Community Involvement Coordinator
Priscilla Tom (tom.priscilla@epa.gov)
(505) 240-0093

The main purpose of engaging community members is to give them the opportunity to become involved in EPA’s activities and also help shape the decisions that are made that affect their community. To further this goal, EPA has developed a Community Involvement Plan which describes the various ongoing outreach activities.

Who Is the Community?

  • The NECR mine site is located in the Pinedale Chapter near the border of the Coyote Canyon, Churchrock, and Standing Rock Chapters, in the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation. In 2006 it was estimated that approximately 30 families lived within 1.5 miles of the site.
  • The nearest community is along the Red Water Pond Road in the Coyote Canyon Chapter, just north of the Navajo Reservation. This community has organized into a non-profit organization, the Red Water Pond Road Community Association, recognized by the Navajo Nation.

EPA Current Community Involvement Activities

To keep the community informed, EPA continues to:
  • Organizes periodic public meetings at local chapter houses or in Gallup, NM
  • Participates in regularly scheduled calls and meetings with the Red Water Pond Road Community Association
  • Provides technical assistance to the Red Water Pond Road Community Association through an EPA national contract, Technical Assistance Services for Communities

EPA Past Community Involvement Activities

EPA recently completed the following activities in the community:
  • Presented with NNEPA and the Red Water Pond Road Community Association representatives to high school classes in Gallup, NM
  • Participated in the Eastern Agency Navajo Abandoned Uranium Mine Open House in April 2017
  • Distributed a Community Involvement Plan with input from the community in 2017
  • Facilitated voluntary alternative housing efforts during construction activities

Partnerships

EPA continues to work and strengthen relationship with a number of organizations focused on uranium and radiation, including:
  • Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency
  • Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Lands Program
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Department of Energy
  • New Mexico Environmental Department
  • Red Water Pond Road Community Association
  • Others as suggested by community members and local officials

Cleanup Progress Timeline

NECR Typical Hollow Stem Auger DrillingNECR Typical Hollow Stem Auger Drilling | Click to EnlargeNortheast Church Rock Mine was operated by United Nuclear Corporation (a company owned by General Electric) from 1967 to 1982. Click on the different years below to learn about recent and upcoming activities.

2000's

  • The Navajo Nation requested EPA take the lead for the NECR Cleanup.
  • EPA oversaw UNC/GE investigations of the Mine Site and initial time-critical cleanup actions to remove approximately 200,000 tons of contamination found in the residential area.
  • EPA completed and put out for public comments the Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis.
  • EPA decided on a cleanup plan to consolidate the NECR mine waste on the nearby UNC Mill Site.

2014

  • UNC/GE completed Pre-Design Studies and Reports
  • EPA negotiated an enforcement agreement with GE to complete the Design Work

2015

  • EPA and UNC/GE signed the Design enforcement agreement (called Administrative Order on Consent) and began design
  • UNC/GE prepared a Design Work Plan

2016-2017

NECR cleanup plan was in design.

2018

UNC/GE finalized the design and submitted a license amendment request to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

2022

Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s anticipated date for a license amendment decision.

Site Photographs

Northeast Church Rock Mine

  • desert landscape with large construction equipment at work October 2009 - Overlooking the NECR mine facing Northeast.
  • Tribal meeting room with speaker talking to attendees 2010 Chapter Meeting in Church Rock Chapter House to discuss NECR cleanup plan.
  • UNC-NECR Design Advisory Team Meeting September 2013 - Steve Dwyer, a UNC/GE design contractor presents to members of the Design Advisory Team including representatives from EPA Regions 6 and 9, Navajo EPA Superfund, and the Red Water Pond Road Community.
  • 2015 Workshop on the Superfund Process in the Gallup Community Center 2015 Workshop on the Superfund Process in the Gallup Community Center.
  • Information booths set up in the Gallup Community Center April 2017 - Community Outreach at the Eastern Agency Navajo Abandoned Uranium Mine Open House at the Gallup Community Center.
  • Three woman sitting at information booth table April 2017 - Red Water Pond Road Community Association booth at the Eastern Agency Navajo Abandoned Uranium Mine Open House at the Gallup Community Center.
  • Presentation to High School Students April 2017 - EPA, Navajo EPA, and Red Water Pond Road Community Classroom Presentation to high school students in Gallup, NM on Navajo Abandoned Uranium Mines.
  • Closeup of students hands holding water sample cups April 2017 - Water testing demonstration with high school students in Gallup, NM.