‘We are all forgotten’: Residents await long-delayed cleanup of uranium waste near Cameron
Arlyssa D. Becenti, Arizona Republic
March 18, 2023
CAMERON — Beverly Ann Huskon and her cousins, Bob Robbins and Natalie Huskie, sat in the bleachers at Dzil Libei Elementary School in Cameron to hear U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Navajo Nation EPA officials discuss the options the community has to deal with waste from an abandoned uranium mine.
The mine is known as the Charles Huskon No. 12 site, named after the prospector who identified areas in Cameron where uranium could be extracted. The three cousins are descendants of Huskon and they wanted to hear more about what would happen to this site named after their grandfather.
“That’s why I came here to see what kind of ideas they have or what they might be talking about to help the people,” said Huskie. “I don’t know how many people are affected by it. I just hope it’s taken care of. I would want it to be taken away to another area.”
Three options were presented: no action, enhance the onsite containment of the waste, or load it up and take it nearly 600 miles away. The third option, they were told, would require about 3,560 trucks.
The Charles Huskon No. 12 site is located 1.8 miles northwest of the Cameron Chapter House and less than a mile west of U.S. Highway 89. In late 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission explored the site, and between 1954 and 1961, Rare Metals Corporation mined it and then hauled it away in trucks off-site for milling.
In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency signed what’s called an administrative order of consent with El Paso Natural Gas, which is now responsible for the site, to asses 19 mines. The site covers 13 acres, including 2.6 acres reclaimed by Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Department.
In the 1990s, the department had pushed the mine waste back into the pit and covered it with clean dirt, also covering several areas of exposed bedrock that emitted natural radiation. The site was fenced off and the pit was capped and poses no risk to the community, according to the EPA.
“This particular mine site, all the mine waste is safely contained in the mine pit and has a clean cover over it, so there is no migration or risk from the Charles Huskon 12 mine site to nearby residents,” said Colin Larrick, U.S. EPA remedial project manager.
The preferred option is thorough on-site containment
The site is part of the EPA’s efforts to clean up abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. The agency has identified responsible parties at many of the sites and they are required to either clean up the site or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work. Larrick said there will always be an option of no action but failing to act will, in time, create a danger.
“Navajo Abandoned Mine did a really good job using engineering design and scientific process to get all of the mine waste material back into the mine pit where it started,” Larrick said of the site. “And they placed a clean cover over the site. That clean cover is a temporary cover. It’s made of fine-grain clay material that doesn’t include organic matter or sandy material that’s good to support plant life and prevent erosion. Over time this temporary cover will erode and the waste material in the pit will be moved by wind and water.”
The second option, enhancing the onsite containment, will involve revegetating the existing cap with native plants and would cost $1.1 million. It’s what the EPA has recommended.
There will also be long-term land-use controls and maintenance, according to the EPA. The time frame for maintenance to be completed will be four and a half months, and it will involve placing mined rock back in the pit. All construction will happen on-site and may require land-use controls, like restriction of homesites.
The third option, moving the waste off-site, would cost $9 million and require 3,560 trucks to pass through the community. That option would take nine months, and it would require more planning and work to take the waste off-site.
“To investigate the site to figure out which area needs to be cleaned up, El Paso Natural Gas surveyed the area all around the mine,” Larrick said. Drainages, where land or water may have moved mined material, were examined and, he said, “there was no migration of material identified.”
Feds agreed to clean up sites decades later
The Atomic Energy Commission announced in 1948 that it would guarantee a price for and purchase all uranium ore mined in the United States. Uranium was discovered in Cove, on the Navajo Nation, and then elsewhere on the reservation. Four centers of mining and milling operated near Shiprock, New Mexico, in Monument Valley, Utah, at Church Rock, New Mexico, and near Kayenta in northern Arizona.
Decades later, the Navajo Nation negotiated with the United States to address the commission’s role in developing historical uranium mining on Navajo land. Those talks led to two legal settlements between the U.S. and the Navajo Nation, the Phase 1 Settlement in 2015 and the Phase 2 Settlement in 2016.
The Phase 1 Settlement provided funds to assess 16 “priority” mines that had elevated radiation levels and were near homes or had the potential for water contamination. The Phase 2 Settlement provided funds to assess an additional 30 mines, conduct two water studies and clean up the 16 Phase 1 priority mines located on the Navajo Nation.
The Navajo Nation has selected Navajo trustees to manage the trust funds and do the work under the oversight of the U.S. EPA and the Navajo Nation EPA. Currently, the U.S. has provided $13.2 million for the Phase 1 Settlement and $21.5 million for the Phase 2 Settlement.
The EPA has identified 523 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, and of these, 111 are in the western region, where Cameron is located. Even with the mines identified by the EPA, there are an estimated 1,000 or more abandoned uranium mine shafts on Navajo Nation.
“It is scary, we had an open mine that we called a ‘swimming pool,’” said Huskon. “It was an open pit with water, and a lot of people of that generation, when we were kids growing up, used to swim in it. Now it’s closed, but a lot are still open. Elders still herd their livestock in the area. I’m sure our water is contaminated by uranium.”
By the late 1930s, it was already known that uranium mining was associated with high rates of lung cancer, but when uranium was discovered and mined on the Navajo Nation in the 1940s, that information was unknown to Navajo miners. Navajo was the dominant language spoken and the reservation was considered isolated.
“When uranium mining began, the predominant modes of transportation for Navajo people were by horse and wagon or by foot on the reservation, the Navajo language had no word for radiation, few Navajo People spoke English, and few had formal education,” according to “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People,” by Doug Brugge and Rob Goble.
“Thus, the Navajo population was isolated from the general flow of knowledge about radiation and its hazards by geography, language, and literacy level.”
With few cautions, miners brought debris home
Huskie’s dad and brother, Bob Huskie and Bobby Huskie Jr., were both uranium miners, and she remembers when her dad would bring his clothes home covered in dirt and debris from the mine for her mom to wash, unaware of this seemingly innocent act’s health risks to the family.
“My dad did work in the mine and he came back and left his clothes around the house,” said Huskie. “And back then, they hand washed everything, that’s why I think my mom was affected by it.”
Robbins said there was really no safety class or anything to inform miners about the dangers, so it was easy to think there was nothing wrong when miners came home with debris on their clothes. In some cases, miners built structures or homes using contaminated rocks and boulders they brought home from work.
“Back in those days they didn’t have safety classes for workers,” said Robbins. “So all that stuff was on their clothes when they came home, and part of that went into the food they ate.”
The remnants of the past still can be seen in the open mine pits. Huskie said there are still pieces of uranium right behind her home and in an open area near her house, which she said authorities have told her they will address. That has yet to happen.
Strong, high winds on the Navajo Nation, especially in the springtime, aren’t unusual. Winds can gust to more than 50 mph in some areas. For people living in places such as Cameron, the wind can stir up the waste and debris left by abandoned uranium mines and blow into faces, homes, cars, water, livestock, just about anywhere and everywhere.
“They flagged the area,” said Huskie. “But it seems like kids go over there and play, and they take the flags. We try to inform the kids to stay away from the area. People come out, ask us questions on how they can help us. A lot of that is questions, it’s never anything finalized where something can be done.”
“We have really bad wind that comes through and we inhale,” said Huskie. “There is no wind breaker where we live. It’s really bad.”
There are about 15,700 cubic yards of mine waste, 11,000 cubic yards from within the former pits and 4,700 cubic yards of cap material. Other areas within the Western Abandoned Uranium Mine Region include Coalmine Canyon, Bodaway-Gap and Leupp.
The EPA will collect input on the recommended alternative during the public comment period from March 4 – April 4. Comments can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (833) 950-5020.
“I just hope it’s taken care of. Even if I live near it, I don’t ever want to move,” said Huskie. “I hope the cleanup is successful. I don’t want it to where they say they’ll clean it up but another administration comes in and it’s just forgotten again. We are all forgotten.”
Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Send ideas and tips to email@example.com.