Feds blasted for lack of cleanup

By Cindy Yurth, Navajo 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 to mind."

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 Angeles.

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 their homes.

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 committee.

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 the committee.

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 lackluster progress.

"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 to Etsitty.

"He told the government panel, 'You guys have your job, but Congress has its job, too,'" he recalled.

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 federal agencies.

"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



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html