MAC: Mines and Communities

Swings and Roundabouts at US Environmental Agency

Published by MAC on 2011-11-08
Source: Navajo Times, AP, Reuters, Kansas City Star (2011-10-27)

Last month, the Republican-dominated US Congress passed bills to severely restrict the capacity of the government's environmental protection agency (EPA) in curbing noxious industrial emissions. See: US citizens face biggest health threat for years, after Republican backlash

Since then, the EPA has postponed implementation of regulations aimed at curbing air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The agency has also been blasted by the influential Sierra Club for allowing Peabody Coal to proceed with its Kayenta mine on Navajo (Dine) and Hopi indigenous territory in Arizona.

On the other hand, the EPA now promises shortly to "clean-up the massive radioactive legacy bequeathed by uranium mining on other Navajo land in New Mexico".

It also plans to introduce rules for the disposal of waste water from coal-bed methane operations within the next two years.

Finally, the city of Joplin must deal with significant and costly lead contamination stirred up by the May 22 tornado and its after-effects.

Sierra Club blasts feds for 'rubber-stamping' mine permits

By Cindy Yurth

Navajo Times

13 October 2011

CHINLE - A Sierra Club spokesman Tuesday blasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Surface Mining for "rubber-stamping" two permits for Peabody Western Coal Co.'s Kayenta Mine, saying they had not seriously considered the impacts on the environment and the community.

The USEPA's Environmental Appeals Board this week finalized a water discharge permit for the mine over the objections of the Sierra Club, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe, which claimed in an appeal that wastewater from the mine contains heavy metals that could end up in drinking and irrigation water.

EPA Water Permits Manager Dave Smith said the appellants did not present any evidence that the mine's treated storm runoff, which is discharged into washes, is a threat to drinking water supplies.

The appellants are considering an appeal to U.S. Circuit Court.

And last month, OSM issued a "finding of no significant impact," or FONSI, in renewing the company's permit to continue mining at its Kayenta operation through 2015, meaning there is no need for a new environmental impact statement.

Public comment on the FONSI is being accepted through Oct. 22 and is supposed to be incorporated into the agency's final record of decision on the permit.

Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club called the FONSI "administratively incomplete," saying it is unsigned and does not include Peabody's groundwater reclamation bond or hydrology reports.

The FONSI calls the mine's impacts on the Navajo Aquifer water "negligible to minor," and states "the N Aquifer drinking water use designation remains uncompromised."

Bessler said OSM has ignored a recent report by University of Arizona scientist Daniel Higgins which contains data showing the mine's use of water impacts some of the water sources around Black Mesa, where it is located.

The FONSI also finds no significant impact on local residents, despite the fact that four households would be displaced by new mining.

"Relocated residents are compensated for the replacement of all structures and for lost grazing acreage if the resident can establish a customary use area claim," the agency reasoned.

"Ask them (the residents) if that's significant," Bessler retorted.

States the FONSI, "Continued mining activities ... would disturb 1,159 acres of land used for grazing and traditional land uses, resulting in a localized, moderate, short-term impact. However, reclamation of these disturbed areas would improve the productivity and quality of grazing lands."

The document also cites the economic benefits to the Navajo and Hopi tribes, stating the mine plans to add 10 new jobs and annual revenue to the tribes will continue at $43.2 million, plus $6.2 million to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and scholarship funds.

Bessler said the Sierra Club plans to submit comments on the document, attaching data from Higgins' study.

"The OSM did not do its due diligence, and we're going to hold them accountable," he said. "If need be, we will take them to court."

Both the EPA decision and the FONSI indicate "the federal government is rubber-stamping Peabody's permit renewals rather than looking out for the environment and the people they're supposed to be serving," Bessler stated. "They're not even pretending to listen to the people."

Peabody spokeswoman Beth Sutton said the federal finding "reinforces Peabody's record of compliance with the Clean Water Act and that claims by activists had no basis.

"Kayenta Mine is a powerful economic force in the region, creating 400 jobs and nearly $370 million in direct and indirect economic benefits for regional communities," she added.

Sutton addressed the UA research in a previous interview, saying that Peabody's own studies contradict Higgins' data and calling his report "light on science."

The Finding of No Significant Impact on the Kayenta Mine permit renewal and related documents can be viewed online at www.wrcc.osmre.gov/Current_Initiatives/Kayenta_Mine/Renewal.shtm


Plan targets highly contaminated mine on Navajo

By Felicia Fonseca

Associated Press

30 September 2011

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The federal government has approved a plan to clean up the most badly contaminated uranium mine site on the Navajo Nation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the plan Thursday to remove 1.4 million tons of contaminated soil from the former Northeast Church Rock Mine near Gallup, N.M., at a cost of $44 million. The mine operated from 1967 to 1982 and has long topped the priority list for cleanup on the vast reservation.

"This is an important milestone in the effort to address the toxic legacy of historic uranium mining on the Navajo Nation," said Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for the EPA's Pacific Southwest Region in San Francisco.

The mine site includes two underground uranium shafts, waste piles, surface ponds and buried waste, contributing to the 4 million tons of uranium ore that was mined from the reservation over four decades. Rain and flash floods have carried the radium-contaminated soil from the mine down an arroyo where children play and livestock graze, and the wind blows it into people's yards.

Clancy Tenley, associate director for tribal programs at the EPA in San Francisco, said the soil will be placed in a lined repository and capped, atop tailings at an adjacent mill site owned by United Nuclear Corp. The EPA is finalizing an agreement with the corporation's parent company, General Electric Co., for the cleanup that will take several years, beginning next summer.

The EPA considered more than a dozen sites to stockpile the waste but said storing it at the mill site also owned by United Nuclear Corp. would be the most cost-effective and could be implemented in a reasonable time frame while protecting human health. Exposure to elevated levels of radium over a long period of time can result in anemia, cataracts and cancer.

"If all goes well, seven years from now the project will be complete," Tenley said.

About 10,000 tons of waste that has higher concentrations of radium will be shipped to Utah for reprocessing or disposal, Tenley said. General Electric said in a letter to the EPA that it didn't believe off-site disposal was necessary, given other waste from other nearby mines could be sent to the repository, dwarfing any potential risk with the more contaminated waste. But General Electric said it would defer to the EPA.

Creating a mound up to 10 feet high that's filled with contaminated waste wasn't the first remedy of choice for the residents or the tribe, who said they would rather see the soil hauled off far from the reservation. But knowing the design phase will take three years and that an Albuquerque, N.M.-based research group that works closely with Navajo uranium issues has been hired as a technical adviser on the project has provided some comfort.

"There's some assurances we got that led us to be supportive of the remedy," said Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the tribe's EPA. "Part of the assurances are that the (Navajo) Nation is going to be heavily involved in the design and engineering as we begin this work."

Larry King, who worked as an underground surveyor at the Northeast Church Rock Mine in the 1970s and early '80s, said he's concerned that the contaminated soil could weigh heavily on the existing mill tailings cells causing the liner to break and groundwater to be spoiled. The EPA said it evaluated the concerns and found that the soil can be placed on the tailings without affecting the groundwater or stability of the tailings.

Still, King said, "It will be in the back of everybody's mind that we can't really spend too much time standing here, because that's where the waste pile was and the radiation."

General Electric has done smaller cleanup projects in the area - demolishing and rebuilding a structure in 2007 and removing 40,000 tons of contaminated soil last year. Nearby residents were temporarily moved during the last cleanup, and Tenley said they will be asked again if they'd like to relocate, either to hotels or by receiving a cash settlement to buy a home.

King said he's not sure he'll be offered alternative housing, but he sounded doubtful he'd take it.

"I have to think about my livestock, my livelihood," said the 54-year-old. "This is where we were raised."


EPA announces plan to clean up largest abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo Nation

EPA Press Release

29 September 2011

SAN FRANCISCO - Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it has approved a plan and committed to clean up the Northeast Church Rock Mine, the largest and highest priority uranium mine on the Navajo Nation.

The cleanup will include removal of approximately 1.4 million tons of radium and uranium contaminated soil and will employ the most stringent standards in the country. The cleanup will place the contaminated soil in a lined, capped facility. The multi-year cleanup will be conducted in several phases.

"This is an important milestone in the effort to address the toxic legacy of historic uranium mining on the Navajo Nation," said Jared Blumenfeld, Administrator for the Pacific Southwest Region. "This plan is the result of several years of collaboration between EPA, the Navajo Nation, and the Red Water Pond Road community living near the mine."

"On behalf of the Navajo Nation, I appreciate the efforts of the USEPA and Navajo EPA, and the cooperation from the state of New Mexico to clean up contaminated Navajo trust lands," said Ben Shelly, President of the Navajo Nation. "A perfect remedy is difficult to design, and in this case every stakeholder can be proud of their input into the remedy. I look forward to the cleanup and putting people to work restoring our lands."

The disposal cell will be designed with participation from the Navajo Nation, State of New Mexico, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Department of Energy. EPA will fund an independent technical advisor to aid the community in their understanding of the project as it develops and facilitate local input into the design process. The cleanup will allow unrestricted surface use of the mine site for grazing and housing.

"Consolidating the waste into one repository will return the land to the Navajo Nation for their traditional use," said David Martin, New Mexico Environment Secretary. "The cleanup will also ensure long term stewardship to protect public health and the environment."

Northeast Church Rock mine operated as a uranium ore mine from approximately 1967 to 1982, and included an 1800-foot deep shaft, waste piles, and several surface ponds.

Under EPA oversight and in conjunction with the Navajo Nation EPA, General Electric conducted two previous cleanups at the site to deal with residual contamination, including the removal and rebuilding of one building in 2007, and removal of over 40,000 tons of contaminated soil in 2010.

Exposure to elevated levels of radium over a long period of time can result in anemia, cataracts, and cancer, especially bone cancer.

EPA's work with Navajo Nation to identify and enforce against responsible parties is part of a 5-year plan to address the problem, which can be found at http://www.epa.gov/region9/superfund/navajo-nation/

Contact Information: Margot Perez-Sullivan, (415) 328-1676,


EPA Delays Pollution Rule For Coal Plants To December

Roberta Rampton

Planet Ark

24 October 2011

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Friday it will postpone its final rule aimed at slashing air pollution from coal plants for a month, but made it clear it plans to move forward on the regulations.

The EPA said it needs the extra time to review 960,000 comments it received on its draft rule, but plans to finalize it by Dec 16.

A group of 25 states has launched a court case over the rule, seeking a delay of at least a year for what they argue is an expensive measure that will shut down old coal-fired power plants.

Analysts have said American Electric Power and Duke Energy could see shutdowns because of the rule, which would require many plants to install scrubbers and other anti-pollution technology.

But the EPA, which has also been sued by environmental groups to finalize the rule, said the regulation is needed to prevent illnesses and deaths caused by air pollution.

"In a court filing today, EPA made clear its opposition to efforts to delay this historic, court ordered standard by a full year," the agency said in a statement.

EPA Under Fire

Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, has been a proponent of cracking down on pollution, but her plans have faced setbacks.

In September, the White House rolled back rules to restrict smog-forming chemicals from power plants, after businesses and some lawmakers complained complying with the rules would cost billions of dollars in a weak economy.

The ozone rule will be reconsidered in 2013.

In contrast, the one-month delay announced on Friday is "negligible," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group.

"I do not believe it is comparable to the ozone delays," O'Donnell said.

The Environmental Defense Fund agreed to the 30-day extension of the deadline to ensure the agency "can finalize the most protective and durable limits on the toxic air pollution from coal plants," its General Counsel Vickie Patton said in a statement.

Senate Eyes Coal Ash Rule

The Republican-led House of Representatives is working to dismantle or delay several EPA rules, but is unlikely many of the initiatives would gain significant support in the Democratic-led Senate.

However, on Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a companion bill to legislation already passed by the House, seeking to overturn EPA regulations on coal ash.

Coal ash is a byproduct from coal plants used to make cement bricks and other building materials. The EPA says the ash can pollute water supplies with heavy metals and other contaminants if not properly contained.

Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, and John Hoeven, a Republican from the same state, said they want states to set up their own permit system for safe storage of coal ash.

"It ensures that Congress and the states hold the reins of environmental policy," the senators said in a statement. Two other Senate Democrats and three Republicans have signed on.

House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee said they hoped the Senate initiative would mean their coal ash bill can become law.

But the White House has been critical of the House coal ash bill, noting 49 storage sites for by byproduct in 12 states have a "high hazard potential" for environmental contamination, should the structures fail.

The EPA's 2010 proposal for coal ash containment and disposal rules was prompted by a massive coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008 which the White House said could cost $1.2 billion to clean up.

(Editing by David Gregorio)


U.S. EPA Developing Wastewater Rules For Shale Gas

By Ayesha Rascoe

Planet Ark

21 October 2011

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Thursday it will develop rules for the booming shale gas industry to dispose of its wastewater, which has been linked to polluted surface water.

The move is one of several that signal the Obama administration plans to push ahead with regulating whatever aspects of shale gas production fall under its authority.

"Where we know problems exist, the EPA will not hesitate to protect Americans whose health may be at risk," said Cynthia Dougherty, a water regulator with the EPA, at a congressional hearing on water resources and shale gas production.

The EPA said it would propose rules for shale gas wastewater in 2014, while regulations for the disposal of coal-bed methane wastewater would come a year earlier in 2013.

Hydraulic fracturing -- a technique that involves injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to extract hydrocarbons -- has unlocked vast U.S. shale oil and gas reserves.

The practice has been mostly exempt from U.S. EPA oversight, but the agency does have authority over wastewater from oil and gas production when it is sent to public treatment plants or released into surface water.

But the rapid expansion of shale drilling has prompted a public backlash, with landowners near shale gas wells and green groups complaining of its environmental impact.

At the same time, shale producers have maintained that the drilling was safe and have warned that onerous federal regulations could limit development.

Kevin Book, an analyst with Clearview Energy Partners, said that while the EPA's decision to develop standards for waste water was important, preemptive regulations from states ultimately posed more of a risk to shale production.

"The EPA isn't the thing operators should worry about," Book said. "The headline risk from federal water regulations is likely to be a footnote to state rules likely to already be in place."

Still, the American Natural Gas Alliance said in a statement it still believes states are best qualified to assess appropriate water disposal requirements for their shale plays.

"As EPA officials move forward we encourage them to partner with the states and take into serious consideration state regulators' existing on-the-ground expertise and ongoing oversight activities," Daniel Whitten, a spokesman for the group.

Some water used in the drilling is recycled, but the EPA said a significant amount requires disposal and some ends up in treatment plants not equipped to deal with such waste.

The EPA said it has reviewed data that found "elevated levels" of pollutants as a result of improper water disposal.

In light of these findings, the EPA said it will begin gathering data and public input to develop standards that shale gas wastewater would have to meet before going to a treatment facility.

The planned rules announced Thursday will not apply to shale oil development, an EPA spokeswoman said.

Protecting Public, Ensuring Access

The Obama administration has walked a fine line on shale production, supporting increased natural gas output for energy security benefits and lower carbon emissions, but stressing the need to protect the environment and public health.

"We can protect the health of American families and communities at the same time we ensure access to all of the important resources that make up our energy economy," EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. "The American people expect and deserve nothing less."

Green groups and fracking critics applauded the EPA's decision to develop standards.

"Proper treatment of this polluted water is vital to ensure clean drinking water for the millions of Americans that share water with the natural gas industry," said Deb Nardone, the Sierra Club's Natural Gas Reform Campaign Director.

(Editing by Dale Hudson, Andrea Evans and David Gregorio)


Savage Joplin tornado exposed lead contamination

By Kevin Murphy

Reuters

27 October 2011

The city of Joplin is asking the federal government to help clean up lead contamination on about 1,500 properties damaged in the savage May 22 tornado.

The twister tore apart structures that contained lead and disrupted soil on property built atop of old lead mines, Joplin city officials said in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cleanup will cost an estimated $5,000 per property or roughly $7.5 million, said Mayor Mike Woolston and City Manager Mark Rohr in a letter early this month to EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks in Kansas City.

EPA spokesman David Bryan said Thursday that the agency is preparing a response and will work with the city to identify lead-contaminated sites and develop a cleanup plan.

"The agreement will include some type of funding mechanism," Bryan said.

The EF-5 tornado destroyed some 9,000 homes and other buildings in Joplin and took 162 lives. Some of the destroyed structures had basements, crawl spaces or slabs made of materials that included lead chat, used before its health risks were known, city officials said.

Much of Joplin is built on old mine sites. The EPA waged a cleanup effort in the early 1990s because of soils contaminated by lead and cadmium. Lead testing has for years been required prior to building projects, but the cost in the wake of the tornado exceeds the means of most residents, the city officials said.

"High lead levels in the disrupted soil potentially represent a significant liability issue for Joplin and a safety hazard for our community as well as a possible impediment to our rebuilding efforts...." Woolston and Rohr wrote.

The Jasper County Health Department recently tested a sampling of 43 properties for lead and cadmium in the affected area and found that 19 of them were in need of some level of remediation, documents show.

(Editing by Greg McCune)


Tornado stirs new worries in Joplin over lead

By Mike McGraw

The Kansas City Star

26 October 2011

As if Joplin weren't already facing a massive rebuilding task, the city now must deal with significant and costly lead contamination stirred up by the May 22 tornado and its after-effects.

City officials estimate that it could cost as much as $7.5 million to clean up lead contamination re-exposed by the tornado on some 1,500 properties in damaged areas, and they have asked the federal government for help, according to an Oct. 3 letter the city sent to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"High lead levels in the disrupted soil potentially represent a significant liability issue for Joplin, and a safety hazard for our community as well as a possible impediment to our rebuilding efforts," according to the EPA letter from Joplin Mayor Michael Woolston. High lead levels in children can cause cognitive and developmental disorders.

EPA officials said late Wednesday that they were working with the city to help identify and restore the properties, adding that the agreement "will include some type of funding mechanism."

In the meantime, however, the city has stopped issuing building permits for some highly contaminated properties in heavily damaged areas until the contamination has been cleaned up.

Properties can be remediated by hauling off contaminated soil or adding layers of topsoil, depending on the level of contamination, according to Jasper County officials.

Lead and cadmium contamination has long been an issue in Joplin, much of which is honeycombed by long-abandoned lead and zinc mines.

The EPA began a massive cleanup effort around Joplin in the early 1990s that is still going on. About 2,400 contaminated properties, mostly in northwest Joplin, were eventually cleaned up by hauling out contaminated soil and replacing it with clean soil.

Some areas of the city remain part of an EPA Superfund site.

But the May 22 tornado, which killed 162 people and damaged about 7,500 residences, also disturbed ground that had long encapsulated toxic levels of lead.

In fact, many of the older homes destroyed or damaged by the tornado were built on contaminated fill material called "chat" that was hauled from the mining operations.

"This was used by builders before the high lead levels in the chat were realized, because it was fairly cheap and readily available," according to the city's letter to the EPA.

In addition, in the aftermath of the tornado, foundations and driveways were broken up, re-exposing that material, city officials said.

"As a direct result of the devastating EF5 tornado ... the city of Joplin has developed concerns about the lead levels in the tornado-affected area due to the removal of the loose tornado debris and the disruption of the soil, which has exposed mined waste throughout the affected area," the city's letter said.

Of 43 properties tested after the tornado by the Jasper County Health Department, 19 had a "yard average" above 400 parts per million, a level that requires remediation. Fourteen additional properties had at least one sample above 400 parts per million.

"The results represent significant lead findings in the tornado affected area," the city said.

The city added that much of the affected area qualifies as low to moderate income, meaning "property owners may have no way to remediate their yard ...."

Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department, said Wednesday that the earlier remediation efforts finally brought down the number of children with higher-than-normal lead levels, and the city wants to ensure that those levels do not rise again in the wake of the tornado.

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