Between Haystack Rock and Mount Taylor, on an expansive sweep of desert near the eastern edge of the Navajo Reservation, Kerr McGee and Homestake mined uranium ore for decades, hauling it down the road in uncovered trucks. The Homestake Mill is now a Superfund site, the final resting place for 7 million tons of tailings. There might be more to come: Uranium Resources Inc., a Texas-based company, wants to reopen the Ambrosia Lake mine. This time around, though, the company says that the tailings will be "dry" and stored belowground in lined beds.
According to locals, the boom around here began when a
Navajo named Paddy Martinez walked into a bar in 1950 and set off a
Geiger counter. He'd been dozing under a limestone ledge and woke
up covered in yellow dust. Martinez's granddaughter, Glenda Rangel,
still lives on the family compound just north of Prewitt, N.M.
Although 350 million pounds of uranium ore eventually made its way
to daylight, her family never benefited from the discovery, she
On a windy day in March, Rangel's husband, Ernest,
practices his golf putt on a rug in the living room. Her
12-year-old son, Billy, is wriggling into chaps to practice some
calf roping. On either side of the family compound, two wells pump
up groundwater into large, round, open tanks. For years, the tanks
have been labeled "For livestock use only," but some people in the
area still haul drinking water from them. "We're told not to, but I
know some people who still do because it tastes better," Rangel
says. Both wells were recently tested by the DiNeh project - a
partnership between the tribe, the University of New Mexico and the
Southwest Research and Information Center - and were found to
exceed Navajo EPA and U.S. EPA standards for uranium in human
drinking water. Rangel's house got indoor plumbing in 1978, but she
says, "I drank (the water) as a girl. I swam in the tanks, both me
and my kids. I don't really think about it. I don't want to start
thinking about it."
Rangel was offered a chance to
participate in a DiNeh health survey. She would have received $15
for doing so, but she declined. Still, she is troubled by questions
about her family's health. "I know a couple of people who died from
breast cancer around here. My older sister died of uterine cancer
in her early 40s. I don't know how much exposure she got. Now,
we're seeing different types of cancer in my generation. I get
migraines. I can't work," she says.
She peers into the
clear, cool water shimmering in the glare of the high desert. The
water looks inviting.
"I wouldn't let my kids swim in