Navajo Nation struggles with fallout from uranium mining

Waste outside an abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo Nation, Cameron, Arizona (Image from
As part of a cleanup settlement, the US will pay out more than $13 million to start dealing with hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on Navajo Nation territory. Navajo officials tell RT it is just the first step on a long road ahead.

The money will be put into an “environmental response trust” managed by the Navajo Nation with the support of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),accordingto the US Department of Justice (DOJ).

“It will provide us with funding to do a very specific task under the cleanup process that’s authorized by the federal superfund law,” Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation’s EPA, told RT’s Ben Swann.

The funds will cover evaluations of 16 abandoned mines throughout Navajo lands, chosen from a list of 46 priority sites. There are hundreds of sites that still need to be addressed. By one estimate, there are more than 1,200 abandoned uranium mines within the borders of the Navajo Nation, a 27,000-square-mile territory stretching across Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

The EPA says it has repaired 34 homes, surveyed 521 mines, compiled a list of 46 priority sites for cleanup, and performed stabilization or cleanup work at nine mines so far. The agency has also provided safe drinking water to more than 1,800 families.

A 2014 settlement set aside $985 million from a multi-billion dollar settlement with subsidiaries of Anadarko Petroleum Corp to clean up approximately 50 abandoned Kerr-McGee mining operations in the Navajo Nation.

Federal surveyors found rich uranium deposits on Navajo lands in the 1940s, and the government authorized private contractors to extract the ore for US weapons and energy needs. About 4 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from the area between 1944 and 1986, after which the mining was halted. The federal government, through the Atomic Energy Commission, was the sole purchaser of the ore until 1966.

Navajo miners worked without any kind of protective gear or decontamination protocols for wages sometimes less than $1 an hour. In her 2011 book, Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, journalist Judy Pasternak wrote that the miners suffered radiation exposure four times that of the Japanese exposed to nuclear bombs during World War II.

In the 1950s, cancer rates among the Navajos were so low, they were thought naturally immune, wrote environmental journalist Sonia Luokkala. By 2004, cancer had become the leading cause of illness and death among the Navajo.

A 2014 survey by the EPA of about 500 abandoned mines found radiation levels up to 25 times higher than normal. Many of the mines with the highest radiation levels were found within a quarter mile of human habitation.

READ MORE: Arizona dream and nuclear reality

“Chronic exposure is definitely one thing we want to get a better understanding of,” Etsitty told RT. Many of the Navajo live in the remote areas of the reservation, often close to the abandoned mining pits that have since filled up with water. Humans and animals drink the water from the pits, often not aware of the possible issues with radiation or toxicity.

“We still have not completed meaningful public health studies to begin answering those questions,” Etsitty said. The DOJ settlement should offer a little bit of help in the process, but merely surveying the extent of the contamination and environmental impact will take much more money and time.