Navajo Nation Pushes for Uranium Cleanup Despite the lure of potentially big money, the Navajo Nation has banned uranium mining on its reservation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. In part, the decision reflects deep Navajo concerns about how past mining activities have damaged health and the environment.
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Navajo Nation Pushes for Uranium Cleanup

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Navajo Nation Pushes for Uranium Cleanup

Navajo Nation Pushes for Uranium Cleanup

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We're always talking here about the rising price of oil, but there's another energy source that's scarce, expensive and in demand. I'm talking about uranium. NPR's Ted Robbins explained why yesterday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TED ROBBINS: Uranium prices have shot up from less than $10 a pound to as high as $137 a pound. Now that decades of stockpiles are gone, countries rich in uranium - Russia, Australia, Canada - are busy supplying it to countries like China and India, which are busy building new nuclear power plants - and to the U.S., which has three percent of the world's uranium reserves but consumes almost 30 percent of the world's supply.

SMITH: But uranium mines in the United States have mostly been abandoned and reopening operations isn't easy. The regulations are strict. We are talking about a radioactive product here. And at least one community with rich uranium reserves is telling the industry to go away.

Mr. JOE SHIRLEY (President, Navajo Nation): We just don't want the mining of uranium on Navajo land anymore, period.


That's Joe Shirley. He's president of the Navajo Nation straddling Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The Navajo have banned uranium mining because they're still dealing with the legacy it left from decades past. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

ROBBINS: If you looked at the five homes in Coyote Canyon from the air, you'd probably think crop circles had been cut around them. Instead, bouncing around in Teddy Nez's pickup truck northeast of Church Rock, New Mexico, it just looks like the rocky soil has been scraped clean.

Mr. TEDDY NEZ: Last summer, EPA, federal EPA, Navajo Nation EPA, came over and said that we're going to do a time-critical removal of the radiation around the residential area.

ROBBINS: Bulldozers took away six inches of radioactive topsoil. As Teddy Nez said, they called it time-critical removal, which this stocky man in a red hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap finds curious, because the soil had been there since he returned from serving in Vietnam in 1971.

The Nez home is right next to an abandoned uranium mine, the kind of mine active all over the Navajo Nation from the 1940s to the 1980s. The thing is, no one told Navajo miners, their families or their neighbors that they were being exposed to radiation.

Tribal member Larry King was a kid at the time. He remembers playing around the mines and the streams coming from them.

Mr. LARRY KING (Navajo Nation): And the water tasted good, so we drank water from there, and I used to herd sheep and play on the waste pile down there.

ROBBINS: Scotty Begay, Jr. was a miner. He says rules were pretty lax back then.

Mr. SCOTTY BEGAY (Former Miner): The yellowcake, which was enriched uranium, people were packing at home. Doors that were supposed to be secured were left open. People were allowed to work around it with bare hands, not wearing the protective gear that they should be wearing.

ROBBINS: These two men were among 20 neighbors who gathered at Teddy Nez's house to talk. When I asked how many have been affected or know someone affected by radiation, 19 of the 20 hands went up.

Mr. TONY HOOD: My name is Tony Hood and this is my dad over here. He's got pulmonary fibrosis right now. And then my late mother had polyps in her intestine where she had to have a colostomy, and subsequently she died later.

ROBBINS: Cancer, chronic colds, asthma, bone aches, clusters of symptoms known as Navajo neuropathy. Chris Shuey is with the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque. He studies the impact of uranium on the Navajo, a people with lower cancer rates than the general population before the mining, and rates three to five times higher now.

Mr. CHRIS SHUEY (Southwest Research and Information Center): There were no standards, there were no safety precautions. And the excuse was the federal government has made a decision to get fissile material out of the ground for the nuclear weapons program to protect national security. And this was the mantra.

ROBBINS: The Navajo are not the only people affected by uranium contamination. Non-native miners and people who worked at or lived downwind from nuclear test sites in the west have suffered too. But on the reservation they're still calculating the long-term effects of living near the mines.

Mr. SHUEY: We're standing right now - this is 50 to 120 times the background.

ROBBINS: That's 50 to 120 times higher than normal radiation levels. We're next to a pile of uranium tailings, mine waste, 40 feet high. The tailings are from a mine owned by United Nuclear Corporation, a subsidiary of General Electric, just the length of a football field from Teddy Nez's house.

A wire fence and warning signs were put up this year, but the fence isn't doing much. Wind blows the contaminated soil into the air; rain washes it under the fence back toward the house. Teddy Nez says the cleanup around his house was at best a band-aid.

Mr. NEZ: When the dust blows, and then the EPA people told me not to work outside too long.

ROBBINS: You might wonder why Teddy Nez and his neighbors don't leave. Well, there's little money to relocate residents, and Larry King says they don't want to leave.

Mr. KING: Traditionally, when a baby is born, when the umbilical cord dries up and falls off, it's buried in the sheep corral. So that's how we're tied to our - to the land. To relocate, that's - I don't think it's in anybody's vocabulary here at the moment.

ROBBINS: Which leaves cleanup, an enormous task, since no one even knows how many abandoned mines there are on the Navajo Nation. Not only that but there are hogans, Navajo traditional homes, which were built using radioactive soil. And up to a third of the nation drinks from unregulated water sources, which could be contaminated.

Mr. NEZ: These are some gauges. We put the filter in here and then we run it. Right now it's just idling.

ROBBINS: With the help of grant money, Teddy Nez checks an air monitoring station near his home. The tribal and federal EPAs are testing water sources. The cost of cleanup will also be enormous, and no one has officially taken responsibility for the contamination. Even the bureaucracy is enormous. Five federal agencies alone are involved, along with tribal and state agencies.

Mr. KING: For your information, we have some more copies here.

ROBBINS: The people of Coyote Canyon, the Northeast Church Rock Mine area, are united, though. Earlier this year, they formed a community association. Members like Larry King think this grassroots effort is their best chance to force a solution.

Mr. KING: Organizing like this and everybody standing their ground and having one voice instead of having a debate but having one voice.

ROBBINS: Many of these neighbors testified before Congress last fall, testimony which resulted in a draft action plan from the EPA. That plan identifies cleanup of the Northeast Church Rock site as one of the highest priorities.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can read the EPA's draft action plan for yourself at

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