Congressional committee outraged over Navajo uranium legacy.
First of four:
By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent
WINDOW ROCK – A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the sound of an instrument used to detect radioactive contamination, clicking away over a soil sample from Tuba City, set a federal oversight committee on its ear Wednesday during a hearing in Washington.
Chairman Henry Waxman’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard from a Navajo Nation delegation about the health and environmental impacts of uranium contamination during a four-hour hearing.
Several congressional leaders expressed outrage at the federal government for allowing such conditions to remain unchecked on Navajoland for so many years, saying they were “ashamed” and “embarrassed.” They offered apologies to the Navajo people.
Their eyes were opened as they listened to George Arthur and Phil Harrison of the Navajo Resources Committee; Stephen B. Etsitty of Navajo Environmental Protection Agency; Doug Brugge, associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine; Larry King and Edith Hood of Churchrock; and Ray Manygoats of Tuba City.
Waxman’s committee has held a series of hearings throughout the year, focusing on programs or agencies that once were effective but are now broken or dysfunctional. “This morning we are looking at an instance where the government has never worked effectively. It’s been a bipartisan failure for over 40 years. It’s also a modern American tragedy,” he said.
“The primary responsibility for this tragedy rests with the federal government, which holds the Navajo lands in trust for the tribe. Our government leased the lands for uranium mining, purchased the uranium yellowcake produced from the mines to supply our nuclear weapons stockpile, and then allowed the operators of the mines and mills to walk away without cleaning up the resulting contamination,” Waxman said.
“Over the years, open pit mines filled with rain, and Navajos used the resulting pools for drinking water and to water their herds. Mill tailings and chunks of uranium ore were used to build foundations, floors, and walls for some Navajo homes. Families lived in these radioactive structures for decades,” Waxman said.
“When the U.S. EPA took readings at one mine site, the radium levels were over 270 times the EPA standard. That was last year,” he said.
The Navajo delegation brought Waxman’s words to life with a few stories of their own.
Resources’ Chairman Arthur said the Navajo Reservation has served, “in the words of a government study, as an ‘energy colony’ for the United States … The Department of the Interior has been in the pocket of the uranium industry, favoring its interests and breaching its trust duties to Navajo mineral owners.
“We are still undergoing what appears to be a never-ending federal experiment to see how much devastation can be endured by a people and a society from exposure to radiation in the air, in the water, in mines, and on the surface of the land. We no longer are willing to be the subjects of that ongoing experiment,” Arthur said.
“I myself was present in Shiprock, the largest community on the Navajo Nation, in the late 1970s when federal officials decided to simply pile up all the radioactive mill tailings on land near the center of town, with no lining under the wastes and a lot of rocks on top to limit erosion. In what other town would the government allow this to occur and remain?”
In Tuba City, an open dump and unlined mill tailings site pose an immediate threat to the main aquifer in the Western Navajo area. “The government has devoted the money needed to remove similar tailings from a rural area near Moab. Are those people or their water resources more valuable than Navajos?” he asked.
Navajo EPA’s Etsitty said the legacy from past uranium activities lingers “due to the current slow pace of cleanup and the poor quality of remediation of known contaminated sites.” Five former uranium processing sites have been cleaned up by the U.S. government, he said, “meaning that the radioactive mill tailings were capped with clay and rock and left in place at or adjacent to the former mill site.” However, none of them were lined, he said.
“As we gather mounting evidence that these unlined landfills seep uranium waste into our groundwater, we watch the federal government dig up and properly remediate a similar site located near Moab, Utah, which is outside of the Navajo Nation borders. Why is this not happening on the Navajo reservation?” he asked.
Because statistics alone do not tell the full story, Etsitty demonstrated, using a sample of radioactive soil shipped from the Rare Metals site in Tuba City, “a site that we call Highway 160,” he said. “I have in front of me an instrument (Ludlum 19) that the Navajo Superfund uses to detect radioactive contaminants.
“This particular device detects gamma radiation. Gamma radiation is all throughout the cosmos and the atmosphere … The sample that I have before me is covered, and as we get closer to it, you’ll hear the detection device starting to recognize the gamma radiation from the source,” he said.
There were a few audible beeps as Etsitty moved closer to the sample, which was 30 times above background level. “I’ll remove the cover and just let the device tell you what’s going on,” he said. The instrument began to beep furiously.
“The sounds that you have heard are just a small demonstration to show that Navajo families are, oftentimes, living within a few hundred yards of materials that we’re told we shouldn’t be exposed to for more than an hour. But we have Navajo residents that have been living in these areas sometimes more than 40 or 50 years,” he said.
Dr. Brugge told the committee, “There has been too little research on the health impacts of uranium mining in Navajo communities. One study under way, for example, will mostly assess kidney disease, and not birth defects, cancer or neurological problems.
“Today, as we begin the public process of addressing community exposures, I can only hope that the path is far shorter than the one traveled by the uranium miners and their families.”
Larry King, a former uranium miner, described the foul odor and yellowish color of the fluids associated with the Churchrock Spill. “I remember that an elderly woman was burned on her feet from the acid in the fluid when she waded into the stream while herding her sheep.
“Many years later, when water lines were being installed in the bed of the Puerco, I noticed the same odor and color in a layer about eight feet below the stream bed. To this day, I don’t believe that contamination from the spill has gone away,” he said.
Edith Hood, who worked at Quivera, also known as the Kerr-McGee mine, was diagnosed with lymphoma in the summer of 2006. She talked about living on Red Water Pond Road, sandwiched between two abandoned mines, where she can still see equipment and “vent bags sticking out of the Earth.”
“These places are still contaminated. I know because I learned how to survey the ground for radiation when our community got involved in a monitoring program in my area four years ago. I know because the government people told us it was,” she said.
“My father has pulmonary fibrosis. My mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. My grandmother and grandfather died of lung cancer. Many of my family members and neighbors are sick, but we don’t know what from. Today, there is talk of opening new mines. How can they open new mines when we haven’t even addressed the health impacts and environmental damage of the old ones?” she asked.
Resources’ Harrison of Red Valley grew up in uranium mining camps, watching children playing on waste piles and drinking mine water, which also was used to mix infant formula. “My little brother, Herman James Harrison, died of a stomach ailment at the age of 6 months. He drank the uranium-contaminated water.
“My father died of lung cancer in 1971 at the age of 46. My cousin’s father, also a mine worker, died of lung cancer at the age of 42. All of my brothers and sisters have thyroid problems and disorders. They didn’t work in the mines but they grew up in places around contamination.
“I have scarring on my left lung. In 1999 my kidneys failed and I was on dialysis until 2001 when I received a kidney transplant from my sister. My story is not unusual,” he said.
Ray Manygoats of Tuba City told how his family cooked their meals on a grill his father brought from Rare Metals. The grill had been used to sift yellowcake. “We would play in the yellowcake sand at the mill, jumping and rolling around in it. We also found many small metal balls at the mill. The balls were used to crush and process the uranium. We played marbles with them and had contests to see how far we could throw them.”
Manygoats has had surgery three times to remove growths from his eyes. His father had breathing problems, he said. “Many of my sisters and brothers also have had problems with their eyes. I lost my mother to lung cancer and stomach cancer … Another family member, Lucille, was never able to grow her hair and always wore a wig all her life.
“Today I still live in the same area, the land of my family. The mill is no longer operating, but the waste from the mill is everywhere,” he said.
Harrison told the committee, “It’s been about 25 years since the last mines closed. My people shouldn’t have to wait another 25 years for the federal government to accept a responsibility that it should have accepted many years ago.”