MAC: Mines and Communities

Finally addressing one of world's worst uranium legacies

Published by MAC on 2008-08-19

Cleaning up your act - EPA summit uranium cleanup

Gallup Independent

14th August 2008

By Kathy Helms, Diné Bureau

GALLUP - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Navajo EPA, along with four federal agencies, outlined a five-year plan Wednesday to clean up 50 years of uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation.

Originally slated for two days, the Navajo Uranium Contamination Stakeholder Workshop compressed two days of information into one because of today's Navajo Nation Code Talker holiday. Among federal presenters were EPA, the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"Three years ago it would have been difficult to imagine a gathering such as this," said Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. "The enormity of the task before us is big - it's huge, humongous.

"There are between 500,000 and 875,000 cubic yards of uranium-contaminated materials at the northeast Churchrock Mine site alone that must be disposed of properly to protect Navajo land and people.

"We also know there are contaminated waters from the former Shiprock mill site that are entering the San Juan River.

We believe that somewhere between 1.3 million and 2.5 million gallons of uranium-contaminated water is leaching out of the Shiprock mill site each year. That's a lot of gallons.

"We know, too, that there are uranium-contaminated waters not only beneath the former Tuba City Rare Metals mill site, but also beneath the former Tuba City open dump. The federal government failed to adequately identify all the vicinity properties associated with former mill sites, such as evidenced by what is referred to as the Highway 160 site," Shirley said.

Dr. Johnnye Lewis, Ph.D., from the University of New Mexico and Dr. Diane Stearns from Northern Arizona University presented information on health studies and research projects related to environmental exposure to uranium. Alfred Dennison of Rock Point, for one, was appreciative.

Dennison, who was born in 1949, told Stearns, "Back in 1970, something happened to me. I couldn't understand that. I got what they called a benign tumor. It changed my life. There had to be something that caused that. And lately I got leukemia. I still didn't understand that. Why? How?

"When I looked into my past, we had lived right under a mine, and we got exposed that way. I didn't understand, but I connected it to uranium - uranium from the mountain. Good things come from the mountai n, but also bad things. But back then, we didn't know.

"Where I live they drilled two wells. Contaminated. Thank you for telling me how the uranium works to break up the DNA strand. What I got is what they call 'Philadelphia.' They told me that the DNA is breaking up," he said.

"It's devastating - and we're still going through it. My grandpa died of lung cancer. My grandma died of stomach cancer. My aunt, stomach cancer. $50,000 (compensation) is just a drop in the bucket. I'm still being treated every day, every month. Other illnesses are starting to come in. So, thank you for the information."

Dennison's story is not unique. Unfortunately, such illnesses have become the price many pay for being Diné and living on the uranium-rich Navajo Nation.

Last October, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman and members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard testimony from representatives of the Navajo Nation about the uranium-mining legacy and commanded the five federal agencies to work together with Navajo to devise a cleanup plan.

The result was the five-year plan which details how the agencies will assist Navajo in cleani ng up contamination from 520 identified abandoned uranium mines, along with contaminated water sources and structures.

In the first year, EPA will address the most urgent risks, such as residents living in potentially contaminated structures, and those drinking from contaminated water sources.

Thirty percent of Navajo households are not connected to a public water system, leaving approximately 14,347 households, or 54,000 people, faced with the prospect of hauling water for household and livestock use.

EPA and the Centers for Disease Control have sampled approximately 150 unregulated water sources, such as livestock wells. Of those, 22 sources exceeded the federal drinking water standard for uranium, and in some cases, arsenic, according to EPA.

Though the wells are for livestock watering purposes only, it was found that 21 were being used for human consumption.

U.S. and Navajo EPA along with members of DiNEH Project staff have been conducting public outreach at chapters to inform citizens, posting permanent warning signs, and helping chapter officials identify alternate water sources.

"This is probably one of the biggest issues identified within this five-year plan," said Mike Montgomery of EPAE2s Superfund Division.

Shirley said his grandmother once told him, "Grandson, you never know, one of these days you might get into a position of influence, and I'm going to share with you a truth. The truth is that we're all on the same side.

"Because we're all families, we're all relatives, it behooves us to make war against the real culprits, against the real monster," she told him, adding that the real monster is "hunger, famine, thirst, the lack of water, the jealousy, the ignorance, the greed, the apathy that is out there - and all manner of disease.

"It preys on everybody. It preys on the elders as well as the babies. That's a truth. The sooner we come to this truth, the sooner we live this truth, the better it is going to be for all of us, because the only way you can make progress in the world is to stand side by side and make war against the real monster," Shirley related.

"I think it's good that we're coming together," he added. "The task before us is daunting, it's great. No one man, no one nation or government can hope to put a dent in it, because it's too big. But working together as a people, as governments and agencies, we have a chance."

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