gets commitment on uranium contamination
By Kathy Helms, Diné Bureau
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
“Have you seen any impact on any of
the livestock, the lambs, or any of the other animals?”
“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
“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 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
“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,”
“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