Navajo lawmakers approve Superfund bill to cleanup sites

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 3-08

The Navajo Nation Council during late February approved legislation that would establish a tribal Superfund law, allowing the tribe to clean up contaminated sites across its sprawling reservation.

The council voted 50-15 in favor of the law during a special session in Window Rock, Ariz.

The legislation, which must be signed by Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., serves the same purposes as the federal Superfund law. It would allow Navajo officials to monitor and remove all hazardous substances, pollutants and contaminants on the 27,000 square-mile reservation that could endanger the health and safety of residents.

“We’re elated,” Freida White, senior environmental specialist for the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency.

“This program will be something awesome for the tribe because it will build the capacity that we’ve always been looking for” in cleaning up contaminated sites, White said.

White said the council’s decision was historic since tribal officials have been working for about 10 years to develop their own Superfund program. She added that she’s not aware of any other tribes that have their own Superfund programs.

Like the federal Superfund law, the tribal legislation places responsibility for the cleanup on current and past owners of sites or those who arrange for hazardous substances to be brought onto the Navajo Nation.

The legislation also creates a fund to help administer the program and pay for cleanup work if the tribe cannot immediately identify those responsible.

“It will allow us to work on sites that didn’t meet the federal U.S. EPA criteria and sites that we wanted to address but couldn’t because it couldn’t be funded,” White said, noting that one of the main purposes of the legislation was to establish a funding source for the program.

Navajo EPA officials said there are about 1,000 abandoned uranium mining sites on the reservation that could be addressed under the legislation as well as other sites that are leaking toxic chemicals.

The next step for the tribe is to develop regulations that would spell out the parameters of the Superfund program and set the rate of a tariff that would fund the program. Tribal officials expect to accomplish that within a year.

Jill Grant, an attorney who works with Navajo EPA, said the process would include internal review by tribal officials, a public comment period and final approval by the council’s Resources Committee.

The tariff would apply to those who transport hazardous substances across the reservation. White could not say how much revenue the tariff would bring in since the rate has yet to be determined.

George Hardeen, a spokesman for Shirley, said the president supports the cleanup of legacy contamination – such as that at the abandoned uranium mines – so the legislation “is right up the president’s alley.”

Shirley has 10 days to act on the Superfund measure, Hardeen said.