By Kathy Helms
Dine Bureau

   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 

   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 

   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 

   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 

   "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 

   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 

   "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 

   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 

   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."

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