Discrimination Against Native Americans Sometimes Means Uranium Poisoning : Shots - Health News In the Navajo Nation, waste from old uranium mines has proved to be an insidious health hazard. Even spring water has become radioactive.
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For Some Native Americans, Uranium Contamination Feels Like Discrimination

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For Some Native Americans, Uranium Contamination Feels Like Discrimination

For Some Native Americans, Uranium Contamination Feels Like Discrimination

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ELISE HU, HOST:

Native Americans say a major problem they face is institutional discrimination. That's a finding of a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In Indian country, they call it environmental racism. During World War II and the Cold War, mining companies blasted 30 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land. Since then, many residents have died of conditions linked to that contamination. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Blue Gap, Ariz.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Helen Nez had 10 children. Now she only has three. Seven of her children died of a disorder called Navajo neuropathy, which is linked to uranium contamination.

HELEN NEZ: (Through interpreter) Many people died, and some have liver disease, kidney disease. And some suffer from cancer as a result.

MORALES: When she was pregnant, Nez and her children drank from a spring that today has uranium levels at least five times that of safe drinking water standards. Four of her children died as toddlers. Three died in early adulthood.

NEZ: (Through interpreter) It is worrisome and troublesome, and you hope that something will be done.

MORALES: In the new NPR poll, more than 1 in 4 Native Americans say the quality of their drinking water is worse than in other places to live. Nez's sister, Sadie Bill, drives out to an abandoned uranium mine near the spring called Claim 28. Along the way, she points to the site of her neighbor's home that had to be hauled away; it was so contaminated.

SADIE BILL: So she passed on about two and a half years ago. And this one over here - she was on dialysis, and she passed on, oh, eight to nine months ago.

CHRIS SHUEY: People on the outside world then said, well, what's wrong with you? Get out of there. Move. That's not economically or culturally feasible.

MORALES: Chris Shuey is an environmental health scientist who's been studying the impacts of uranium mining on the Navajo people for almost four decades. He points out Navajos are tied by tradition to the land where they're born.

SHUEY: People have been captive to these exposures now for three generations.

MORALES: The community and many others like it want to know why it's taking the federal government so long to clean up the abandoned mines. In the NPR poll, 39 percent of Native Americans say discrimination based in laws and government policies is a bigger problem than discrimination based on individuals' prejudice.

SHUEY: The slow pace of cleanup is directly related to the law itself. The law places more importance on the relationship between EPA and the companies that caused the problem than it creates a right of sitting at the table of the local affected community. And so on Navajo, that is institutional racism.

MORALES: In this case, Shuey says the policies of the Energy Department, the EPA and the tribe have hurt the Navajo people. Of the 500 abandoned mines, the EPA has only cleaned up nine so far. And Shuey says cleanup presents a lot of challenges.

SHUEY: There's not a lot of places to take this stuff to. You invariably put it in somebody else's backyard.

MORALES: The EPA wouldn't make anyone available for an interview, but it said in a statement, the federal government has reached settlements valued at $1.7 billion with mining companies, enough to clean up about 40 percent of the abandoned mines.

MATT CAMPEN: The EPA is really caught between a rock and a hard place.

MORALES: University of New Mexico toxicologist Matt Campen is studying the air quality surrounding abandoned mines.

CAMPEN: They get attacked by both advocacy groups for not doing enough and by industry for doing too much.

MORALES: Campen says it comes down to allocation of resources and authority to get things done. A Navajo group is currently evaluating the cost to remediate the mine near Helen Nez and her sister Sadie Bill's home.

BILL: We lost too many people. We don't want our future young people to have to go through this again.

MORALES: At the current rate, it would take multiple generations for the Navajo to be free of uranium contamination. For this family and for many others, though, it's already too late. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Blue Gap, Ariz.

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