Navajo Nation EPA Executive Director Valinda Shirley remarks to NRC about abandoned uranium on April 22, 2022


(The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Good evening, everybody…Honorable President, thank you for your statement. And thank you, President, for being a pillar of support to me, to community members and to families, and for your help in remediating the 525-plus abandoned uranium mines.  And I do want to say thank you to Shima Edith, for your strength and for your patience, and really for your strength.  And then to the Honorable Members and staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and then to our other panelists with us today. Good afternoon to everybody here with us today. 

On behalf of the Navajo Nation as the Navajo EPA executive director, I offer to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission my statement on the Northeast Church Rock sites.  As the President has stated, and as the community has shared with you today, the Navajo Nation has always been steadfast in our position that the waste should go somewhere else, not across the street. 

And you’ve seen today that it literally is across the street. 

The mill site, although it is not on the Navajo trust land, is engulfed and surrounded by Navajo trust land, it is surrounded by Navajo communities, Navajo families. We understand, we are not ignorant, I know what the Navajo Cercla law is, I know what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does. We’ve had counselors and attorneys tell us these things until we’re blue in the face. And many of our community members can probably tell you exactly what the Cercla process is, here today.

In September 2011, the US EPA issued an action memorandum to locate or to dispose of the 1 million cubic yards of waste to the mill site. And in this action memorandum, the US EPA acknowledged that the UNC mill site is listed on the national priorities list, a superfund national priority list site. It is beyond me still today, why we would take the waste to a site that is listed on the national priorities list. 

US EPA defines the national priority list sites as areas where there’s no release, a site that is designated by US EPA to warrant further investigation. And again, I don’t understand why you would take additional waste to a site that already has a lot of problems.  

And some of these issues: United nuclear Corporation is also addressing groundwater contamination at the mill site; the UNC is also addressing source contamination, source control and on site surface reclamation.  For these reasons alone, shouldn’t we consider a different site another alternative? In the midst of the pandemic, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requested comments on the draft environmental impact statement for the disposal of combined waste and an amendment of the UNC license. 

We serve our communities as best we can by providing technical, scientifically sound comments to draft environmental impact statements and to provide some of that Diné fundamental knowledge as we provide our comments as well too. 

So within the draft environmental impact statements, we found that it was incomplete and it lacked a lot of studies, studies that are important to the Navajo people and to the Navajo EPA. There were current relevant geological and hydrological studies that were lacking. Studies of maximum probable flooding, full understanding of the damage to the riprap done in a single flash flood is lacking, seismic studies in conjunction with numerous proposed engineering changes to the arroyo and to the current impoundment structure are lacking as well. 

And lastly, the full accurate and full toxicology study is lacking from the draft environmental impact statement. And still, upon further review, we found whole sections of the draft environmental impact statement missing. We found incorrect math miscalculations. And there were issues stated in the draft environmental impact statement that were not addressed within the draft environmental impact statement or within any other documents.

There was uranium mining happening underground in the eastern region of the Navajo Nation. Background levels of contamination such as uranium, vanadium, arsenic and even radon are very low in that area naturally. 

One of the comments to the NRC from Navajo EPA is regarding the radon release from this decision. And then in the draft environmental impact statement, the concerns were dismissed with the argument that the radon is already being released at levels well above background so there was no need to correct impoundment structures but rather strive to keep it at the already elevated levels. 

And that’s unacceptable with how many families we have living near that site already. There are no accurate, consistent and long term air monitoring applications described in the draft environmental impact statement. Mitigation plans are unrealistic and wholly deficient in their conception. 

As we mentioned, climate change is a real thing. And flooding is going to be a real possibility that needs to be factored in as well. That whole area is within a floodplain. And then finally, Navajo EPA fully rejected the draft environmental impact statement, which we felt was insufficient. And then to move forward to the 10 year plan. I think this is certainly an opportunity for all of us, with the federal EPA, with the federal partners identified in the 10 year plan such as BLM, the BIA, even the state of New Mexico to come together and find other alternatives for this site. Where there’s a will, there is a way and here today you’ve heard all of the historic trauma that exists there. Please do not add to it by amending the UNC license and that would be my statement this evening. Thank you so much.