URANIUM

El Paso Natural Gas sues feds over cleanup of Navajo Nation mill debris

El Paso Natural Gas Co. filed a federal lawsuit against the Energy Department and other federal agencies this week, seeking to force them to clean up debris from a disused uranium processing mill in the Navajo Nation that the company used to operate.

El Paso Natural Gas also offered to help the Navajo Nation press Congress for funding to take protective steps at two old dump sites on the nation's land where radioactive material has surfaced.

Earlier this week, El Paso outlined a plan to lobby members of Congress from Arizona and New Mexico and other members on key committees to get federal financing for additional work. The company also pledged to install a chemical seal over the old dump sites and erect chain-link fencing around them.

The company filed the lawsuit against DOE and the other agencies and offered to help the nation after the tribe gave it an ultimatum to clean up the debris from the mill. The tribe also hired California lawyer John Hueston to oversee a larger effort to clean up radioactive contamination left on Navajo Nation land by the uranium industry over the past decades.

El Paso and a former subsidiary called Rare Metals Corp. of America ran a uranium processing mill in Tuba City, Ariz., from 1956 to 1966. After it closed, desert winds spread radioactive dust from the tailings pile.

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DOE eventually covered the pile with earth, but Navajo lawyers contend that the agency's failure to install a lining beneath the earthen layer caused resultant groundwater pollution.

In 2003, erosion exposed the debris to the open air, but DOE said its authority to conduct cleanup and maintenance work on the pile expired.

Since then, dangerous levels of uranium were recorded in wells on both Navajo and adjacent Hopi lands (Judy Pasternak, Los Angeles Times, May 17). -- RJD

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