Feds blasted for lack of cleanup
By Cindy Yurth,
Times Times, October 25, 2007
CHINLE — Members of the U.S. House Committee
on Oversight and Government Reform lambasted federal
officials Tuesday for the slow pace of uranium site
cleanup on the Navajo Nation, witnesses at a Washington,
D. C. committee hearing reported.
"When I left, the committee was
grilling the government officials very hard," said
Doug Brugge, an associate professor at Tufts University's
Department of Health and Family Medicine and co-author
of the book "The Navajo People and Uranium Mining."
On second thought, he noted, "That's
an understatement. 'Tearing them limb from limb' comes
It was, as Council Delegate George Arthur
(San Juan/Burnham/Nenahnezad) put it, "a really
bad day to be a federal agent."
According to Arthur, Committee Chairman
Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., called the hearing to educate
the committee on the extent of the problem from uranium
contamination on the reservation, and to determine Congress's
role in fixing it.
Arthur said Waxman, who became committee
chair after the Democrats regained control of the House
this year, had read a Los Angeles Times series on the
effects of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation and wanted
to learn more. Waxman's district includes parts of Los
Navajo Nation Environmental Protection
Agency executive director Stephen Etsitty, who also
testified at the hearing, said he felt hopeful afterward.
"We achieved our goal, which was
to put forth to the U.S. government that we need to
pick up the pace" of cleanup efforts, he said.
While having government regulators called
on the carpet wasn't part of the plan, Etsitty said
the facts speak for themselves.
"When you have so many years and
such small, small progress to show for it, people get
angry," he said. "I think the key word that
came up in the committee was 'outrage,' and the word
was used by both Democrats and Republicans."
30 years of neglect
For 30 years, parts of the Navajo Nation
have been subjected to high levels of radioactive substances
in the air, land and groundwater, the legacy of two
decades of uranium mining during the Cold War.
Former uranium miners testified they
were never told by their companies or the federal government
about the dangers of radioactivity. They didn't wear
any protective clothing other than jumpsuits that they
took home and washed, spreading radioactive dust in
Ray Manygoats of Tuba City, whose father
worked in the nearby Rare Metals uranium mill, recalled
his family cooking on a grill made from a sifting screen
his father had brought home from the mill, and playing
marbles with grinding balls used to crush the ore.
Today, he said, he suffers from unexplained
growths on his eyes and sores on his ears. A relative
of his, whose family also worked in the mines, was born
without hair and never grew it.
Manygoats' mother died of lung cancer,
and his father has breathing problems.
Council Delegate Phil Harrison (Red
Valley/Cove) and others testified of scarring on their
lungs, lung cancer among people who never smoked, miscarriages
and birth defects among their children.
Etsitty testified that at four uranium
mills on Navajo - at Shiprock, Mexican Hat, Utah, Tuba
City and Cane Valley near Monument Valley - tailings
piles were left in place and capped with clay but never
lined underneath, allowing radioactive minerals to dissolve
and seep into the groundwater.
Of the 1,200-odd former uranium sites
- mines, mills or tailings piles - either on the Navajo
Nation or within one mile of it, only one has been thoroughly
assessed under federal Superfund protocols, and that
happened only within the past year, Etsitty told the
Arthur, chairman of the Navajo Nation
Council's Resources Committee, called the Navajo Nation
an "energy colony" of the United States and
wondered why tailings piles in the middle of Navajo
towns are left to languish while others in communities
such as Moab, Utah, and Durango, Colo., were removed.
"Are those people or their water
resources more valuable than Navajos?" he asked
As the Navajos testified, Arthur watched
the committee members' faces and said most of them seemed
"very, very shocked."
"Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) looked
like she was about to cry," he reported.
Pushing for reform
Arthur laid out a six-point agenda for
the committee, including softening the stringent paperwork
requirements of the Radiation Exposure Compensation
Act so more Navajos can get compensated for their illnesses.
He also proposed adding 20 new positions
to the Environmental Protection Agency - all of them
assigned to work with the Navajo Nation.
He'd also like to see Congress officially
back the DinŽ Natural Resource Protection Act of 2005,
which prohibits uranium mining or milling on "Navajo
Indian Country" - which, according to Arthur, should
include the Navajos' sacred mountain, Mt. Taylor.
Officials from the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the
Indian Health Service testified that their agencies
have been working steadily on the waste problem, but
the scope is so large and the funding so limited that
they've barely scratched the surface.
By 1998, testified David Geiser of the
Department of Energy's Office of Legacy Management,
DOE had spent millions of dollars remediating 5,335
properties across the country. But only 31 of these
were on the Navajo Nation.
While the government officials got a
good scolding from the committee, Etsitty said the congressmen
appeared to take their share of responsibility for the
"DOE was acknowledging that they
haven't done enough, which is what we wanted to hear,"
he said. "But they also explained that their authority
over this issue expired in 1998, and they need new legislation
to get back to work on it.
"And, of course," he said,
"the primary barrier has always been funding. In
the end this is going to take a whole lot of money,
and that's where the sticking point is."
Waxman acknowledged that fact, according
"He told the government panel,
'You guys have your job, but Congress has its job, too,'"
The Navajo EPA head was also glad to
hear both Democrats and Republicans expressing "empathy
and sympathy" for the DinŽ witnesses.
"Our council delegate, George Arthur,
made a point to request that this matter not be politicized,"
Etsitty said. "Any partisanship that arises should
be dealt with immediately."
What really encouraged Etsitty was that
Waxman called two more meetings on the subject: a Nov.
8 roundtable to which Navajo officials were invited,
and a Dec. 12 meeting with the heads of the appropriate
"In the next two months, we should
see some good mileposts," the NEPA director said.
"A fair amount of momentum has been established
and the challenge for us is to keep this momentum moving."
Arthur agreed. "We need to get
organized enough to say, 'This is what we want, this
is how we want it and this is where we want it,'"
he said. "If we just sit back and say, 'Well, they're
going to be taking care of it,' we'll be disappointed.
I've learned that after all these years."
Etsitty also took the opportunity to
publicly thank the Navajo EPA staff and managers he's
worked with over the years on uranium issues.
"A lot of times Navajo people criticize
Navajo employees for not doing enough," he said.
"Let me assure you these issues are dealt with
day-in and day-out at the (tribal) EPA.
"The frustrations that came up
at this hearing are the frustrations we feel every day
working with the U.S. government," he said.
Those who want to read all the testimony
can find it online at http://oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1560