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Senate bill aims to help tribes with cleanup of abandoned uranium mines

An abandoned uranium mine site on the Navajo Nation.
KNAU/Melissa Sevigny
An abandoned uranium mine site on the Navajo Nation.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate aims to hold the federal government accountable for the cleanup of abandoned mines on tribal lands and throughout the country. An estimated 140,000 such sites nationally threaten public health and the environment.

The Legacy Mine Cleanup Act would dedicate $100 million to assist tribes with the remediation of abandoned uranium, copper, gold and other hard-rock sites. Many of the mines in Indian Country haven’t received Superfund dollars because they’re not on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priority List. According to sponsors, including Arizona Senator Mark Kelly, the bill would better coordinate cleanup efforts between the EPA, federal agencies, and state, local and tribal governments and create an emphasis list of abandoned sites across the country.

"The federal government needs to do more to step up and clean up abandoned mines posing threats to the health and safety of Arizona communities and our environment," said Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, one of the sponsors of the bill, in a statement. "Our bipartisan legislation will ensure tribal governments have the resources they need to address these contaminated mine sites and that the federal government takes seriously the health and safety challenges posed by abandoned mines across the western United States.”

The legislation focuses on the cleanup of the more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on and near the Navajo Nation. Officials and residents have long attributed increased cases of lung and bone cancer, impaired kidney function and other debilitating health conditions to the sites.

Between 1944 and 1986 almost 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands for Cold War nuclear weapons production. The cleanup is expected to take many years and billions more dollars to complete.

Ryan Heinsius was named interim news director and managing editor in January 2024. He joined KNAU's newsroom as an executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.