For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining's Deadly Legacy Lingers : Shots - Health News Uranium mining on Navajo lands ended in 1986, but the tribe is still suffering profound health effects. The government started cleanup only recently; many of the polluters have gone out of business.
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For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining's Deadly Legacy Lingers

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For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining's Deadly Legacy Lingers

For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining's Deadly Legacy Lingers

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The federal government is cleaning up land on the Navajo Nation. Hundreds of uranium mines operated there. And many Navajo people have died of kidney failure and cancer, conditions linked to uranium contamination. New research from the Centers for Disease Control shows uranium in babies being born today.

Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff, Ariz.

MARIA WELCH: No? OK.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Surveying families like this one is a big part of field researcher Maria Welch's job. She works for the Navajo Birth Cohort Study.

WELCH: So I'll be asking you about feeding practices, any questions about stress and things about the home. Are you currently breastfeeding baby?

MORALES: Today Welch learns this mother mixes baby formula with tap water. Forty percent of the tribe lacks running water. Nearly a third of the study participants have high levels of uranium in their urine compared to the U.S. population as a whole.

WELCH: And he wasn't born premature, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.

MORALES: Mining companies blasted nearly 4 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land between 1944 and 1986. The federal government purchased the ore to make atomic weapons. As the Cold War threat petered out, the companies left, abandoning more than 500 mines. Welch got involved in the study because of her own family's exposure to uranium. Both parents grew up next to mines, even playing in contaminated water.

WELCH: One of the long-standing stories is when they did the mining, there would be these pools that would fill up. And all of the kids swam in them. And my dad did too.

MORALES: Many Navajo unwittingly let their livestock drink from those pools and their children play in mine debris piles. Some even built their homes out of uranium. All four of Welch's grandparents have died, and she worries about her parents' health and now her daughter's. Cancer rates have doubled on the Navajo Nation from the 1970s to the 1990s.

WELCH: Why isn't there more of an outrage? Why isn't there more of a community sense of - what the heck is going on? How did this does happen? Why is this still occurring? Why hasn't anything been done?

GEORGE MCGRAW: Problems like this really disproportionately affect low-income communities of color.

MORALES: George McGraw is a human rights advocate working on the Navajo Nation. His organization, DIGDEEP, is raising money to dig wells on the reservation.

MCGRAW: Flint might feel really far away from the Navajo Nation in rural Arizona. But when you look at the demographics of it, it really isn't. I mean, this is a community that has found themself (ph) voiceless

MORALES: The U.S. Justice Department has recently gone after some of the mining companies. An EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld says since 2008, the agency has hauled away thousands of cubic yards of mine waste and has rebuilt nearly 50 contaminated homes. But there's still much more to be done.

JARED BLUMENFELD: We're spending a lot of time making sure that the polluters pay, so it isn't the federal taxpayer.

MORALES: One company recently paid over a $1 billion, but a third of the mining companies have shut down or have run out of money. The federal government and tribal leaders knew about some of the dangers decades ago, but only started the cleanup in recent years.

BLUMENFELD: We understand that there's a frustration. We share that frustration that some of this takes a long time.

MORALES: And the uranium issue on the Navajo Nation is part of a much bigger problem. Across the western United States, there more than 160,000 abandoned hardrock mines, thousands of which continue to pollute.

For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.

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