Deadly dirt: Navajos in fight for their lives

Salt Lake Tribune – Deadly dirt: Navajos in fight for their lives

Tribune Editorial
Article Last Updated: 10/29/2007 07:34:24 AM MDT

If a picture speaks a thousand words, a small container of contaminated soil and a Geiger counter speak volumes.
“Beep, beep, beep, beep . . . ” was the only sound in the chambers of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington last week, as members of the Navajo Nation presented an audio-visual display that was both convincing, and frightening.
The radioactive dirt came from the sprawling Navajo reservation – 27,000 square miles of hardscrabble land in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico – where a staggering 520 abandoned and unreclaimed uranium mines spoil the environment and the health of the reservation’s inhabitants. Soil samples near homes reveal deadly gamma radiation and radon readings more than 25 times higher than the level that is considered safe.
Committee members stared in stunned silence as the container was sealed and the dirt was removed from the room. Then Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, added the exclamation point to the presentation.
“The sounds that you have heard . . . show that Navajo families are living within a few hundred yards of materials that we’re told we shouldn’t be exposed to for longer than an hour.”
Point made. And point taken.
“If a fraction of the deadly contamination the Navajos live with every day had been in Beverly Hills or any

wealthy community, it would have been cleaned up immediately,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California. “But there’s a different standard applied to Navajo land.”
The congressman is correct. The feds will spend $98.4 million cleaning up a single site near Moab, far more than the pitiful and minuscule $7.8 million spent on a Superfund cleanup program on the reservation in the past 16 years. And that has to change.
Navajo officials are already working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prioritize cleanup sites, and the agency has provided funding for sealing mine shafts and removing physical hazards at other mine sites. The Navajos have also wisely approved a resolution forbidding future uranium mining on the reservation. But the damage is already done. Now it needs to be repaired as expeditiously as possible.
Waxman wisely called for more hearings, a comprehensive study of the health risks posed by the tailings, and an accelerated cleanup schedule. Congress needs to make that happen.

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