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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
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U.S. Dodges Suit Over Radioactive Navajo Land

(CN) - The Navajo Nation cannot pursue environmental claims over two sites contaminated with radioactive mill tailings, a federal judge ruled.

From 1955 to 1968, the United States contracted with El Paso Natural Gas and its predecessor to "mine, mill, and process uranium and vanadium ore for use in the manufacture of nuclear weapons," U.S. District Judge Richard Leon explained. "These contractors processed the ore at a uranium processing mill located on the Navajo Nation Reservation near Tuba City, Ariz. During its operation, the mill generated radioactive mill tailings-a type of radioactive waste."

After a joint evaluation of the contamination at one site along Highway 160, the Navajo Nation was to assume primary responsibility for remediating the site through an expected two-year excavation process. As part of its agreement with the Department of Energy, the tribe released the United States "of any liability or claim ... concerning such remedial action."

Nevertheless, the Navajo intervened in a complaint against the U.S. government filed by El Paso Natural Gas. Leon dismissed the suit in Washington, D.C., Monday, writing that "recent events have removed this court's subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' remaining claims."

The gas company's claims under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act sought an injunction ordering defendants to "perform cleanup activities" at one site, the Tuba City Open Dump."

But Leon said such relief would "undoubtedly" obstruct the government's ongoing remedial investigation and feasibility study (RI/FS) and the remedial process.

Concluding that the claims constitute a 'challenge' to the defendants' removal action, they are barred under the judicial-review provision of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, the 22-page ruling states.

Leon also found that the requested declaratory judgment and civil penalties for environmental violations would also interfere.

Because the Navajo Nation has agreed on a remediation plan and released the United States from liability related to the Highway 160 site, there is no longer a live controversy between the parties to support jurisdiction, the decision states. As such the claims are moot and must be dismissed, Leon wrote.

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