Feds give Navajo uranium contract to firm with sketchy past

A High Country News investigation finds the EPA awarded Tetra Tech a contract despite knowing its subsidiary had likely engaged in data manipulation, false reporting and profiteering.

 

Near a reclaimed pit mine in Oljato, Utah, on the Navajo Reservation, chunks of uranium lay scattered among the debris. The EPA has contracted a cleanup company with a questionable past to assess contamination of 30 abandoned mines on the reservation.
Gail Fisher/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In September 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency received a troubling message from the Navy: Tetra Tech EC, the firm tasked with cleaning up the radioactive former naval shipyard Hunters Point in San Francisco, might have manipulated its data.

The Navy’s draft report underscored claims that employees of Tetra Tech EC subcontractors had made in federal court several years earlier: that the company was complicit in the falsification of soil samples to make the Hunters Point site appear ready for development. In 2013, radiation control technicians hired by Tetra Tech EC subcontractors filed a whistleblower lawsuit stating that their supervisors directed them to fake soil samples taken from several sites around the shipyard, bringing in “clean” soil to replace the potentially radioactive samples. In 2016, whistleblowers filed additional lawsuits alleging that Tetra Tech EC supervisors had ordered and overseen this fraud. Last year, two former company supervisors were sentenced to eight months in prison for falsifying records related to the Hunters Point cleanup. Whistleblower litigation is still ongoing, but Tetra Tech EC said in a public statement that it “sought to follow all required standards and protocols and to operate in a thorough, honest, and professional manner to provide testing and cleanup services as required by its contract.” It also said it conducted an investigation into the allegations in 2012, coordinated with the Navy to complete corrective actions, and that there have been no repeat occurrences of falsification. 

After employees came forward, the Navy conducted its own assessment of Hunters Point and found evidence of likely fraudulent sampling. The draft report, delivered to the EPA for review, stated that the Navy had seen “evidence of potential data manipulation and falsification” at multiple sites around the shipyard, and recommended that numerous soil samples be retested. 

Just a month after receiving the Navy’s report, however, the EPA announced on its website that it had awarded Tetra Tech EC’s parent company a major contract to assess contamination on 30 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Reservation — the first large contract awarded for assessing the contamination of the 520-plus mines since uranium mining began there in 1944. In its press release, the EPA made no mention of Tetra Tech EC’s alleged misconduct at Hunters Point, nor did it give any indication of the reports of fraud had made the agency reconsider the decision to award the contract to Tetra Tech EC’s parent company. 

In a statement to High Country News, the EPA emphasized that “Tetra Tech EC was technically a different legal entity for federal contracting purposes than their parent company Tetra Tech,” and that “neither Tetra Tech EC or its parent company Tetra Tech were suspended or disbarred when the contract solicitation went out.” The EPA also emphasized that it “is aware of and takes very seriously the allegations against Tetra Tech EC, a subsidiary of Tetra Tech. The agency recognizes the public may have concerns regarding this selection. As with all contracts, the EPA will meticulously review all data and deliverables to ensure work is being performed properly and will be reporting results to the public as they become available.”

Navajo citizen Larry Gordy stands outside an abandoned uranium mine that he found on his ranch in 2010. The level of radioactivity coming from the site, one of over 520 across the Navajo Reservation, registered so high it was beyond the capacity of EPA equipment to measure. Tetra Tech has been awarded a contract to survey 30 such abandoned mines.
Joshua Lott

Navajo citizen Tommy Rock, an environmental researcher who says he worked with the Navajo Nation EPA-Public Water Systems Supervision Program from 2010 to 2012, said that he was among the multiple Navajo citizens involved in the uranium cleanup effort who were concerned about the EPA’s decision to award a contract to Tetra Tech.

Rock, whose grandfather was a uranium mine worker who died from cancer, sits on the Diné Uranium Remediation Advisory Commission, a working group established by the Navajo Nation to analyze the impacts of uranium contamination on the reservation. He says that in early 2018, the contract decision — and Tetra Tech's history — came up at one of the commission’s first meetings.

We were alarmed when we found out that Tetra Tech was awarded (the contract), he says. He and other members of the commission were told that the contract was “a legal matter,” and that lawyers for the Navajo Nation would be handling the issue. The commission has not discussed the matter since, he said. Nona Baheshone, executive director of the commission, wrote in an email that she and other members of the Uranium Commission were not involved in the EPA’s decision to use Tetra Tech. The commission has existed since at least early 2017, according to a press release. But, according to Rock, the commission had not yet started meeting when the contract was awarded.

Rock said that the EPA’s decision to award the contract to the same company involved in Hunters Point came up as a matter of concern early on in the process. “With the stuff that happened at Hunter’s Point … it’s an issue.”

The EPA says that it has had “quarterly meetings with the Navajo Nation, formal consultations, release of draft evaluation criteria for industry input, and industry days on and around the Navajo Nation,” all aimed at working with the Nation in regard to the contract, as well as “providing an opportunity for Navajo and other interested businesses to provide input on contracting strategies and solicitation content.” However, the EPA notes that “as is the case with all federal procurements and consistent with federal contracting regulations, the award decision was based strictly on the evaluation criteria stated in the solicitation. ... Federal procurement regulations prohibit undue influence on award determinations, which includes influence from outside entities as well as entities internal to the agency.”

Tetra Tech Inc., which did not respond to requests for comment, has maintained some distance from its subsidiary amid the Hunters Point scandal. In a statement released in June 2017, Tetra Tech Inc. acknowledged Nuclear Regulatory Commission findings that two Tetra Tech EC employees were involved in the fraudulent sampling, but said that the company took appropriate actions to report and correct the improprieties. It also emphasized that the commission “did not conclude that anyone on Tetra Tech EC’s management team was involved in the misconduct.” Tetra Tech EC is a wholly owned subsidiary of Tetra Tech Inc., meaning that although the parent company owns all of its stock, it is a separate legal entity with a leadership structure of its own, including its own president, Andrew Bolt. The subsidiary model is common among large corporations that wish to keep brand identities separate or avoid added legal and financial risk.

But to those familiar with Tetra Tech’s work in Hunters Point, the question remains: Why would the EPA award the company this contract, given its record?

The past performance of Tetra Tech, even beyond its subsidiary at Hunters Point, has been marked by controversy. The parent company has been at the center of other lawsuits, including a consolidated case regarding its involvement in cleaning up after the North Bay Fires, a series of wildfires that devastated regions north of San Francisco in the fall of 2017. Those suing Tetra Tech allege the company and another contractor, Ashbritt Inc., removed excessive amounts of soil and other material to increase their cleanup profits, causing property damage. They also claim the companies falsely reported to government agencies that lands were uncontaminated when additional testing was necessary to confirm that they were clean. In 2019, a federal court dismissed the racketeering claim, although state allegations in the consolidated case remain pending. (Tetra Tech did not respond to requests for comment about this case or any other allegations.)

The revelation that the cleanup around Hunters Point Shipyard may have been botched has angered residents in the adjacent Hunters Point and Bayview neighborhoods, more than 80% of whom are not white, according to 2013 Census data. They see it as an example of environmental racism and injustice. The residents, represented by attorney Charles Bonner, filed a mass action lawsuit against Tetra Tech EC in 2018. 

Less than two months after announcing the Navajo cleanup contract, the EPA sent the Navy a review of its report on Tetra Tech EC’s cleanup at Hunters Point. According to documents provided to High Country News by David Anton, attorney for the Tetra Tech EC whistleblowers, in December 2017, the agency wrote to the Navy, saying, “The data analyzed demonstrate a widespread pattern of practices that appear to show deliberate falsification, failure to perform the work in a manner required to ensure ROD requirements were met, or both.”

“The Navajo Nation project is a bull’s-eye radioactive project with dangerous radioactivity. For Tetra Tech to get that project at all — to be even allowed to bid on it — is shocking.” 

“The Navajo Nation project is a bull’s-eye radioactive project with dangerous radioactivity,” Anton says. “For Tetra Tech to get that project at all — to be even allowed to bid on it — is shocking.” 

The $85 million contract the EPA awarded to Tetra Tech to assess contamination on the Navajo Nation’s uranium mines, most of which have lain abandoned for more than 30 years, is a major step in addressing the potential health risks — kidney disease, bone and lung cancer — people on the Navajo Reservation may face. Many Navajo citizens live within several miles of mines and are exposed to potentially contaminated water sources and soil. Chris Shuey, an environmental health scientist at the Southwest Research and Information Center who is involved with colleagues at the University of New Mexico in a long-running study on the relationship between uranium exposure and health, says the study has shown a “very clear pattern of increased risk” of certain metabolic conditions, like cardiovascular and kidney disease, among Navajos living near abandoned uranium mines. Another study of children on the Navajo Nation showed that by the age of just 2 to 6 months old, nearly 20% of participants had such high levels of uranium in their urine that they were at the 95th percentile of American adults.

Uranium tailing waste is still visible on the site near Cameron, Arizona.
Joshua Lott

Many Navajo residents’ risk risk of kidney disease increased significantly during the mining era and the risk of cardiovascular disease, immune impairment and some chronic metabolic diseases was elevated during the environmental legacy period after the mines closed in the early to mid-1980s, Shuey said.

A large portion of the contract’s funding comes from a $1 billion settlement between the EPA and the Kerr McGee company and its successor, Tronox, which conducted uranium mining at around 50 of the mines. It will allow Tetra Tech Inc. to assess the levels of contamination around 30 mines, and begin the process of determining future cleanup efforts. The company will also train Navajo citizens in cleanup work and purchase supplies from Navajo businesses.

The EPA says it has not yet awarded a contract for more extensive cleanup of the Navajo uranium mines, but expects to early next year.

The agency says that it follows the Federal Acquisition Regulations in awarding contracts, an extensive process that takes steps to prevent special interests or others from influencing the award process. Potential contractors are evaluated on their technical capability to carry out the work, its cost and their past performance. The EPA weighs these three factors differently depending on the requirements for the job. A panel that has signed nondisclosure and conflict-of-interest certifications reviews the potential contractor on the other two categories before considering cost information. After all offers have been reviewed, the chair of the panel writes a report detailing these evaluations, and a contracting officer recommends a company for the contract.

But frustration about the cleanup existed prior to Tetra Tech’s contract. The EPA and the Navajo Nation have been working together for more than 20 years to study and address the contamination. But progress has been slow, particularly considering that many of the toxic mines had lain open for over 40 years before the EPA began using Superfund resources in 1994 to address the contamination. As well, the Abandoned Uranium Mines on the Navajo Nation Superfund site is not on the EPA’s National Priorities List (NPL). (An EPA spokesperson says that NPL status does not determine priority in funding or resources dedicated to sites.) In 2008, the EPA and five other federal agencies, in consultation with Navajo Nation, developed the first comprehensive plan to address the legacy of uranium contamination in and around the Navajo Nation. As of 2014, of the 43 highest-priority Navajo Nation mines as designated by the EPA, only one of them — the Skyline Mine — had been mostly cleaned up.

According to the EPA, now in the second year of a five-year contract, Tetra Tech has helped the agency complete over 30 removal-site evaluations in the area near Cove, Arizona. But in light of Tetra Tech’s prior scandals, the contract concerns environmental justice advocates, attorneys familiar with Hunters Point and Navajo citizens.

“There’s a lot of abandoned uranium mines out there,” says Tommy Rock, the Diné Uranium Remediation Advisory Commission member and environmental researcher, adding that “the potential for someone to take advantage of a tribe is definitely out there.” 

Susie Neilson is a reporter and private investigator. She lives in Berkeley, California. Follow her on Twitter @susieneilson. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

This coverage is supported by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the Brinson Foundation.

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