Settlement Reached in Northern Arizona Mine Cleanup

The federal government announced this week that it has reached a multi-billion dollar settlement with a petroleum company implicated in a decades-long operation that contaminated a large swath of land in northeast Arizona. According to the United States Justice Department, the federal government will receive $5.15 billion to clean up sites contaminated by waste from uranium ore mining in the Lukachukai Mountains of Arizona. Among the contaminated sites is the nation’s largest American Indian reservation, home to members of the Navajo Nation.

Anadarko and its former parent company, Kerr-McGee, are responsible for paying the cleanup costs that have been agreed upon as part of the settlement. The Navajo Nation is just one of the plaintiffs in the suit; also listed as parties are 22 states, a trust for tort plaintiffs, four environmental cleanup trusts, and the United States government. Tronox will receive the largest portion of the settlement, estimated to be about $4.5 billion (88 percent) of the total awarded. Of that amount, the Navajo Nation will receive 23 percent, or about $1.18 billion.

While the settlement is an encouraging step toward the rehabilitation of contaminated sites, it is not a panacea. The settlement is only sufficient to fund the cleanup efforts of about 49 abandoned mining sites nationwide; there remains no funding for hundreds of other similarly impacted sites.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly noted that the settlement “will be a great help in restoring the abandoned uranium mine sites.” But he did not ignore the reality of the ongoing situation. “We must not forget about the 460 other sites still in need of cleanup funds,” said Shelly.

The settlement does end the uncertainty regarding how the responsibility for paying the required funds will be allocated between the two defendant companies. The Justice Department noted that between 2002 and 2006, Kerr-McGee attempted to shift liability for the environmental damage to Tronix, while keeping the valuable assets it held solely within the parent company. But prosecutors saw through this strategy; the settlement ensures that Kerr-McGee is being held responsible for its contamination of wood-treating facilities with the carcinogen creosote, as well as its pollution of Nevada’s Lake Mead with rocket fuel. Though the litigation took years to reach this conclusion, members of the Navajo Nation expressed thanks that Anadarko and Kerr-McGee have finally been held accountable for dumping their radioactive waste on Navajo land.