Uranium cleanup begins on Navajo Nation


On top of Oljato Mesa on the Navajo Nation, these days the sound of wind and birdsong has been replaced by the snarl of heavy machinery.  And to many residents the cacophony is welcome – because of what it represents.

The Environmental Protection Agency is finally starting to haul away the toxic remnants of decades of uranium mining in Utah’s Monument Valley. "I hear the trucks," resident Elsie Mae Begay told the Salt Lake Tribune. "When they start cleaning up, it’s OK for us."

The Tribune story continues:

The task is not an easy one. The agency, undertaking the "emergency cleanup" as an interim solution until the Navajo Nation decides on a permanent one, has a half-century of local distrust to deal with along with the practical challenges of eliminating the uranium hazard.

… The $6 million cleanup work here is part of EPA’s plan to address uranium problems all over the reservation. About $22 million is dedicated to building alternative water systems. Another $60 million over five years will go toward identifying and dealing with contaminated homes and mine sites.

In our 2008 story On Cancer’s Trail, writer Florence Williams vividly described the  consequences of uranium extraction for the Navajo:

Uranium can be found in several of the Jurassic sandstones that lie beneath the Four Corners region like a wrecked layered pastry. The target of frenzied mining throughout the Cold War, uranium ore has been wrenched from the ground, pulverized, milled and tossed in tailings across the Navajo Reservation. Low-level radioactive waste has dissolved into groundwater, escaped onto dust particles and blown off thousands of passing trucks to settle uneasily on surface soils. Over 1,000 abandoned uranium mines pockmark Navajo lands, but only half of them have been reclaimed. Exposure to uranium and its daughter elements has been linked to lung cancer, kidney damage and bone disease in Navajos, and it is the suspected culprit in numerous other medical conditions, from degenerative nerve disease and birth defects to a variety of other cancers.

The Navajo have borne a deeply unfair burden. Four million tons of uranium have been pulled from beneath their land in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, mostly for use in nuclear weapons. Federal compensation for miners can't make up for the disease they now suffer. A Salt Lake Tribune editorial earlier this year summarized the significance of the cleanup:

It is the least the nation can do to repay the area’s residents for the sacrifice they, unwittingly, made for the development, first of America’s atomic weapons program, then of its drive for nuclear energy. It is a process that should also be useful in designing the next round of environmental protection standards and protocols, one that might make all the suffering felt, and all the money now spent, at Oljato unnecessary at the next such project.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

Image courtesy Flickr user IPPNW Deutschland.

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