Navajo gets commitment on uranium contamination

By Kathy Helms, Diné Bureau
Galllup Independent, OCTOBER 25, 2007

WINDOW ROCK — Representatives of the Navajo Nation received a bipartisan commitment Tuesday from members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to address “a modern American tragedy” resulting from decades of uranium mining activities foisted on an uninformed Navajo public by the U.S. government.

In response to a request by Resources Committee Chairman George Arthur that the committee approach the issue from a “human concept,” rather than political, Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., assured him that “both Democrats and Republicans on this committee are very clear that we want to work together, that we’re all outraged by what we’ve seen happening.”

The Navajo Nation panel was questioned extensively by the committee before representatives from several federal agencies involved in oversight of the Nation and uranium cleanup activities were put on the hot seat.

Before moving on to that panel, Waxman had some comments regarding a demonstration involving radioactive soil from U.S. Highway 160 in Tuba City by Stephen B. Etsitty, executive director of Navajo Environmental Protection Agency; and testimony from Navajo Nation Council Delegate Phil Harrison regarding Indian Health Service’s blending of uranium-contaminated water so that it could be used as drinking water for residents of Cove and Red Valley.

“Mr. Etsitty brought in some dirt that he showed was very radioactive, and as I understand, Mr. Etsitty, that is not the most radioactive part of the dirt that is on your property. Is that correct?”

“That is correct,” Etsitty said. “There are many other samples and places from where this sample came from that are much higher. But for the demonstration that we did here this morning, we had to abide by shipping constraints and also safety overall.

“What I demonstrated was exposure, and what we had here was very limited exposure and the levels that we picked up on the particular sample were high, but not putting us here in this room immediately at risk. But if members were to consider the level that people are being exposed to over decades, it does amass to a grave public health concern,” he said.

Exposure to yellowcake
Waxman said the committee had to go through “extraordinary efforts” to allow Etsitty to bring the sample into the hearing. “The Capitol police were very concerned about it. We had a lot of people that were very concerned that we should even bring that small little sample into the room. And yet, we should realize that this is the kind of radioactive dirt that the Navajo people are being exposed to every day,” he said.

“The second point I want to make, Mr. Harrison, is that the idea that we would have blended water — water contaminated with uranium, that is radioactive, and then blended with noncontaminated water — I don’t think anybody in this Capitol would drink it. And yet we’re asking people in the Navajo Nation to drink this water. The federal government is giving its OK to this.”

Harrison, who grew up in Cove and lives east of Red Valley, earlier told the committee. “We have two water wells that produce over 115 gallons a minute. Both of those wells had exceeded the EPA standards. We tried to resolve that by working with General Electric and we tried to pursue a grant through USDA.

“Because of the bureaucratic system that they had, we ran out of time to address the water well in a 24-month period. So the Indian Health Service went to another course of action to blend that water well with another source of water well to cut down the EPA readings,” Harrison said.

Waxman told him, “I just find that unbelievable. Their solution is to take contaminated water and to mix it with less contaminated water and have people drink it. This, to me, is just amazing that that would be the solution that the Indian Health Service would come up with. After not being able to figure out what to do, they would come up with a solution that, to me, can’t be a solution to protect people’s health.

“If we’re not willing in this Congress to be exposed to the dirt and the water that you’re exposed to every single day, then I don’t think we ought to ask you to be exposed to it either. And I think that’s a telling point for how people here in Washington think it’s maybe different for you. Why they should think it’s different for you and they wouldn’t want it for themselves, underscores the neglect that we have given to this very serious problem,” he said.

“Let me say to all of you ... you’ve given us very powerful testimony and all of us here feel empathy with you and your families and people we haven’t even met that we know have suffered. I have to say that I feel enormous shame that the federal government has treated the Navajo Nation as poorly as it has.”

Waxman asked whether United Nuclear Corp. cleaned up the Northeast Churchrock Mine when it left, and was told by Larry King of Churchrock, “They never cleaned it up. Everything is still there.”

He asked Edith Hood of Churchrock about the 50- to 60-feet-high waste piles that stand about 1,000 feet from her door and near the homes of eight other families in the vicinity. “Do children sometimes play in that pile?” he asked. She responded, “Yes, they do.”

“Have you seen any impact on any of the livestock, the lambs, or any of the other animals?” he asked.

“Yes. We have lambs that did not have wool — hair — but they died within days. We have butchered sheep, and in one case, the fat was yellow, which is not normal,” she said.

Darrell E. Issa, R-Calif., told the committee, “We have an obligation to make sure that either the companies that mined those facilities, or the United States government, if necessary, clarify what the responsibilities are and get it fixed in a timely fashion. And on a bipartisan basis, you have assurance from this committee ... that it is something that once started I believe we will continue to work on until we get you a resolution.”


Rep. John A. Yarmuth, D-Ky., told the Navajo delegation, “I must say that in my 10 months on this committee, I have sat through a lot of hearings that made me sad and angry. But I’m not sure that any hearing has shocked me as much as this one. This is truly a stunning example of failure on the part of our government. I commend the chairman and members of both parties for wanting to get to the bottom of this and to make sure that our government responds in the way it should.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., remarked, “You have all suffered greatly, and in my opinion, needlessly, for corporate greed and for our nation’s weapons program, and I am personally embarrassed at the lack of concern for all of the Navajo people who lived, and continue to live. Those who are passed, I offer my condolences to your families for your loss. As you have pointed out, the Navajo have stood valiantly by the United States at their time of need, and as an American, I thank you for that.

“I can’t go back and change the past. I’m here today to do what I can to make a better future for our children and for our planet. So I’m going to ask you, and I would like for you to be specific as possible ... what you think the federal government needs to be doing. Flying overhead in helicopters and taking photographs and doing very cursory studies of where there may or may not be uranium waste is not my idea of doing a full-scale cleanup,” she said.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he agreed with Yarmuth’s comments. “Certainly on this committee we’ve heard some pretty bad things — but nothing quite so bad, quite so arrogant, quite so thoughtless, quite so consequential as what has happened on your land,” he said.

He questioned Etsitty about the status of abandoned mine cleanup. “The EPA admits to 520 mines and the Navajo Nation, depending on how, I guess, we define a mine, says it could be up to 1,200,” Welch said.

“My understanding about your study is that 90 percent of these mines have been capped or filled by the Navajo Nation itself. But those caps don’t do anything about the groundwater, and they don’t eliminate the radiation threat from the mines that you are exposed to, your children will be exposed to, and in all likelihood, your grandchildren will be exposed to.

“The first step in cleaning up the mines is doing an environmental site assessment. Mr. Etsitty, the U.S. EPA has done a site assessment at one mine — the Northeast Churchrock Mine, is that right?” Welch asked.

“That is correct,” Etsitty said.

“So they’ve got one done and 519 more to go,” Welch remarked. “What I understand from our briefing is that the EPA flew over the mines and took aerial radiation levels, but they aren’t detailed enough to create a cleanup plan. So they just gave you a list of the mines with information about nearby settlements and the water sources and asked you to prioritize them. The EPA said it would then begin site assessments on the highest priority. Is that your understanding of what’s going on?”

“Yes, we’ve had a project going back several years to go back and inventory and identify as many of these sites as possible,” Etsitty said. “That began with aerial surveys. Now we are at a point where we have prioritized the top 32 sites, with Northeast Churchrock being the priority site on that short list.”

“How long has the EPA had your list of priorities?” Welch asked.

“Well, we’ve been on this project, which we call the Abandoned Uranium Mine Collaborative, and we’ve been working with EPA pretty close to 10 years. The list was developed early on. It was just a matter of compiling all of the site characteristic data into a database. We did have ambitious goals at the beginning. We ran into cost difficulties with the final product, but we do have a completed product. I would say the information has been available for about eight years,” Etsitty said.

“So, has the EPA got any site assessments of the mines you’ve identified?” Welch asked.

“Directly, just the Northeast Churchrock Mine site,” Etsitty said.

“Just one?” Welch asked. “So, we haven’t even begun the assessments, let alone the cleanup. ... There’s a long way to go, obviously,” he said.




Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.