The Navajo Nation has requested the federal government:
* Establish a moratorium on uranium mining and processing in
Navajo Indian Country that mirrors the Natural Resources
Protection Act of 2005 passed by the Navajo Nation Council
banning the same activities;
* Provide funding for at least 20 full-time employees and
detail up to 20 federal environmental specialists at the Navajo
EPA offices to address groundwater, surface, air, and human
health impacts of prior uranium activities with an appropriation
of at least $5 million for overhead and indirect costs;
* Remove all contaminated materials at the uranium mill
tailings sites on the Navajo Nation and dispose of them
* Fund and conduct comprehensive health assessments and site
assessments at all 520 (+/-) abandoned uranium mines in Navajo
* Begin comprehensive remedial action at the Tuba City and
Churchrock sites; and
* Make an initial appropriation of $500 million for cleanup of
radioactive waste throughout the Navajo Nation. The $500 million
figure is based on the costs of cleaning up comparable sites.
— Based on a presentation by Resources Committee Chairman George
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – Representatives of the Navajo Nation received a
bipartisan commitment Tuesday from members of the House Committee
on Oversight and Government Reform to address “a modern American
tragedy” resulting from decades of uranium mining activities
foisted on an uninformed Navajo public by the U.S. government.
In response to a request by Resources Committee Chairman
George Arthur that the committee approach the issue from a “human
concept,” rather than political, Chairman Henry A. Waxman,
D-Calif., assured him that “both Democrats and Republicans on
this committee are very clear that we want to work together, that
we’re all outraged by what we’ve seen happening.”
The Navajo Nation panel was questioned extensively by the
committee before representatives from several federal agencies
involved in oversight of the Nation and uranium cleanup
activities were put on the hot seat.
Before moving on to that panel, Waxman had some comments
regarding a demonstration involving radioactive soil from U.S.
Highway 160 in Tuba City by Stephen B. Etsitty, executive
director of Navajo Environmental Protection Agency; and testimony
from Navajo Nation Council Delegate Phil Harrison regarding
Indian Health Service’s blending of uranium-contaminated water so
that it could be used as drinking water for residents of Cove and
“Mr. Etsitty brought in some dirt that he showed was very
radioactive, and as I understand, Mr. Etsitty, that is not the
most radioactive part of the dirt that is on your property. Is
“That is correct,” Etsitty said. “There are many other samples
and places from where this sample came from that are much higher.
But for the demonstration that we did here this morning, we had
to abide by shipping constraints and also safety overall.
“What I demonstrated was exposure, and what we had here was
very limited exposure and the levels that we picked up on the
particular sample were high, but not putting us here in this room
immediately at risk. But if members were to consider the level
that people are being exposed to over decades, it does amass to a
grave public health concern,” he said.
Waxman said the committee had to go through “extraordinary
efforts” to allow Etsitty to bring the sample into the hearing.
“The Capitol police were very concerned about it. We had a lot of
people that were very concerned that we should even bring that
small little sample into the room. And yet, we should realize
that this is the kind of radioactive dirt that the Navajo people
are being exposed to every day,” he said.
“The second point I want to make, Mr. Harrison, is that the
idea that we would have blended water – water contaminated with
uranium, that is radioactive, and then blended with
non-contaminated water – I don’t think anybody in this Capitol
would drink it. And yet we’re asking people in the Navajo Nation
to drink this water. The federal government is giving its OK to
Harrison, who grew up in Cove and lives east of Red Valley,
earlier told the committee. “We have two water wells that produce
over 115 gallons a minute. Both of those wells had exceeded the
EPA standards. We tried to resolve that by working with General
Electric and we tried to pursue a grant through USDA.
“Because of the bureaucratic system that they had, we ran out
of time to address the water well in a 24 month period. So the
Indian Health Service went to another course of action to blend
that water well with another source of water well to cut down the
EPA readings,” Harrison said.
Waxman told him, “I just find that unbelievable. Their
solution is to take contaminated water and to mix it with less
contaminated water and have people drink it. This, to me, is just
amazing that that would be the solution that the Indian Health
Service would come up with. After not being able to figure out
what to do, they would come up with a solution that, to me, can’t
be a solution to protect people’s health.
“If we’re not willing in this Congress to be exposed to the
dirt and the water that you’re exposed to every single day, then
I don’t think we ought to ask you to be exposed to it either. And
I think that’s a telling point for how people here in Washington
think it’s maybe different for you. Why they should think it’s
different for you and they wouldn’t want it for themselves,
underscores the neglect that we have given to this very serious
problem,” he said.
“Let me say to all of you . you’ve given us very powerful
testimony and all of us here feel empathy with you and your
families and people we haven’t even met that we know have
suffered. I have to say that I feel enormous shame that the
federal government has treated the Navajo Nation as poorly as it
Waxman asked whether United Nuclear Corp. cleaned up the
Northeast Churchrock Mine when it left, and was told by Larry
King of Churchrock, “They never cleaned it up. Everything is
He asked Edith Hood of Churchrock about the 50 to 60-feet-high
waste piles that stand about 1,000 feet from her door and near
the homes of eight other families in the vicinity. “Do children
sometimes play in that pile?” he asked. She responded, “Yes, they
“Have you seen any impact on any of the livestock, the lambs,
or any of the other animals?” he asked.
“Yes. We have lambs that did not have wool – hair – but they
died within days. We have butchered sheep, and in one case, the
fat was yellow, which is not normal,” she said.
Darrell E. Issa, R-Calif., told the committee, “We have an
obligation to make sure that either the companies that mined
those facilities, or the United States government, if necessary,
clarify what the responsibilities are and get it fixed in a
timely fashion. And on a bipartisan basis, you have assurance
from this committee . that it is something that once started I
believe we will continue to work on until we get you a
Rep. John A. Yarmuth, D-Ky., told the Navajo delegation, “I
must say that in my 10 months on this committee, I have sat
through a lot of hearings that made me sad and angry. But I’m not
sure that any hearing has shocked me as much as this one. This is
truly a stunning example of failure on the part of our
government. I commend the chairman and members of both parties
for wanting to get to the bottom of this and to make sure that
our government responds in the way it should.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., remarked, “You have all suffered
greatly, and in my opinion, needlessly, for corporate greed and
for our nation’s weapons program, and I am personally embarrassed
at the lack of concern for all of the Navajo people who lived,
and continue to live. Those who are passed, I offer my
condolences to your families for your loss. As you have pointed
out, the Navajo have stood valiantly by the United States at
their time of need, and as an American, I thank you for that.
“I can’t go back and change the past. I’m here today to do
what I can to make a better future for our children and for our
planet. So I’m going to ask you, and I would like for you to be
specific as possible . what you think the federal government
needs to be doing. Flying overhead in helicopters and taking
photographs and doing very cursory studies of where there may or
may not be uranium waste is not my idea of doing a full-scale
cleanup,” she said.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he agreed with Yarmuth’s
comments. “Certainly on this committee we’ve heard some pretty
bad things – but nothing quite so bad, quite so arrogant, quite
so thoughtless, quite so consequential as what has happened on
your land,” he said.
He questioned Etsitty about the status of abandoned mine
cleanup. “The EPA admits to 520 mines and the Navajo Nation,
depending on how, I guess, we define a mine, says it could be up
to 1,200,” Welch said.
“My understanding about your study is that 90 percent of these
mines have been capped or filled by the Navajo Nation itself. But
those caps don’t do anything about the groundwater, and they
don’t eliminate the radiation threat from the mines that you are
exposed to, your children will be exposed to, and in all
likelihood, your grandchildren will be exposed to.
“The first step in cleaning up the mines is doing an
environmental site assessment. Mr. Etsitty, the U.S. EPA has done
a site assessment at one mine – the Northeast Churchrock Mine, is
that right?” Welch asked.
“That is correct,” Etsitty said.
“So they’ve got one done and 519 more to go,” Welch remarked.
“What I understand from our briefing is that the EPA flew over
the mines and took aerial radiation levels, but they aren’t
detailed enough to create a cleanup plan. So they just gave you a
list of the mines with information about nearby settlements and
the water sources and asked you to prioritize them. The EPA said
it would then begin site assessments on the highest priority. Is
that your understanding of what’s going on?”
“Yes, we’ve had a project going back several years to go back
and inventory and identify as many of these sites as possible,”
Etsitty said. “That began with aerial surveys. Now we are at a
point where we have prioritized the top 32 sites, with Northeast
Churchrock being the priority site on that short list.”
“How long has the EPA had your list of priorities?” Welch
“Well, we’ve been on this project, which we call the Abandoned
Uranium Mine Collaborative, and we’ve been working with EPA
pretty close to 10 years. The list was developed early on. It was
just a matter of compiling all of the site characteristic data
into a database. We did have ambitious goals at the beginning. We
ran into cost difficulties with the final product, but we do have
a completed product. I would say the information has been
available for about eight years,” Etsitty said.
“So, has the EPA got any site assessments of the mines you’ve
identified?” Welch asked.
“Directly, just the Northeast Churchrock Mine site,” Etsitty
“Just one?” Welch asked. “So, we haven’t even begun the
assessments, let alone the cleanup. . There’s a long way to go,
obviously,” he said.