An abandoned uranium mine in the Navajo Nation
In the summer of 2010, a Navajo cattle rancher named Larry Gordy stumbled upon an abandoned uranium mine in the middle of his grazing land and figured he had better call in the feds. Engineers from the Environmental Protection Agency arrived a few months later, Geiger counters in hand, and found radioactivity levels that buried the needles on their equipment.
The abandoned mine here, about 60 miles east of the Grand Canyon, joins the list of hundreds of such sites identified across the 27,000 square miles of Navajo territory in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico that are the legacy of shoddy mining practices and federal neglect. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the mines supplied critical materials to the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
For years, unsuspecting Navajos inhaled radioactive dust and drank contaminated well water. Many of them became sick with cancer and other diseases…
The E.P.A. filed a report on the rancher’s find early last year and pledged to continue its environmental review. But there are still no warning signs or fencing around the secluded and decaying site…
“If this level of radioactivity were found in a middle-class suburb, the response would be immediate and aggressive,” said Doug Brugge, a public health professor at Tufts University medical school and an expert on uranium. “The site is remote, but there are obviously people spending time on it. Don’t they deserve some concern?”
Navajo advocates, scientists and politicians are asking the same question.
The discovery came in the midst of the largest federal effort to date to clean up uranium mines on the vast Indian reservation. A hearing in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led to a multiagency effort to assess and clean up hundreds of structures on the reservation through a five-year plan that ends this year.
Yet while some mines have been “surgically scraped” of contamination and are impressive showpieces for the E.P.A., others, like the Cameron site, are still contaminated. Officials at the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy attribute the delay to the complexity of prioritizing mine sites. Some say it is also about politics and money.
“The government can’t afford it; that’s a big reason why it hasn’t stepped in and done more,” said Bob Darr, a spokesman for the Department of Energy…
For some Navajos, the uranium contamination is all of a piece with their fraught relationship with the federal government.
“They’re making excuses, and they’ve always made excuses,” Ms. Lucy Knorr said. “The government should have had a law in place that told these mining companies: you clean up your mess when you leave.”
Even if the law was in place, the history of dealings between the US government and any of the Indian nations isn’t worthy of a well-contrived lie. The government cares as little as do the mining companies for the dangers left behind on Indian land.
Anyone who’s ever worked and lived in the medical community in the Navajo Nation knows of Navajo neuropathy. A generational illness that has distorted the lives of the children of uranium miners with genetically-distorted nervous systems. A result of parents who worked the mines.
Does anyone believe the radioactive waste, the radioactive sites remaining are less important to the health of the First Nations than, say, a couple extra aircraft carriers or a bombing wing dedicated to preserving the income of oil companies in the Middle East?
Our government is represented by at least as many hypocrites as the mining industry. In truth, I’m not certain I could tell them apart. They all look – and sound – the same to me.