Navajo families help create five-year uranium cleanup plan

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

GALLUP, April 18, 2013

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T he meeting room for the Uranium Contamination Stakeholder Workshop was packed with more than 200 tribal officials, federal representatives and Navajo families affected by uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation attending.

The meeting brought all of these people together for a two-day meeting to discuss ways to alleviate the affects of uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation over the next five years.

Back in 2006, various tribal and federal agencies dealing with remediating uranium mining on the reservation got together to set goals. The first five-year plan ended in 2012 with only some of these goals met and now the agencies are meeting again, this time with Navajo families involved, to set goals for a second five-year plan.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly opened up the workshop on Tuesday with a statement that the agencies "still have a long way ahead" to deal with a variety of problems stemming from the uranium mining on the reservation in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

The tribe still doesn't know, he said, how these mining operations and uranium milling operations affected the underground water systems, or the homes of Navajo families who lived within a quarter mile of these mills.

Hundreds of Navajo families also built their homes using material from the mining and mill operations. The tribe and the federal government are still in the process of tearing these homes down and relocating Navajo families into safer homes.

Federal and tribal agencies need to continue to clear up the site of the Church Rock, N.M. mill site as well as the Tuba City, Ariz. dump.

Nicole Moutoux, who heads the Superfund Program for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, agreed that the agencies did not meet their goal of cleaning up the Church Rock site in five years and that the agencies need to make it a priority to get it done during the next five years.

She said the group has a long road ahead since surveys have found that there are more than 400 sites on the reservation that exceed the average uranium levels.

"There are 36 sites that are more than 10 times the norm," she said.

Another speaker, Angela Ragin-Wilson, representative for Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said more efforts are being made to track the effects of uranium exposure on the health of young Navajos as part of a birth cohort study.

This is a serious effort, she said, given the fact that "congenital anomalies are the leading cause of infant deaths on the Navajo Reservation."

Currently, she said, health agencies have limited data on the effects of uranium exposure on the health of Navajo children, who live close to the sites or in homes where some of the material was gathered at uranium or mill sites.

To correct this, her agency is in the process of recruiting 1,500 Navajo mothers with the idea of monitoring their children to see how they develop.

Under the present program, the agency is monitoring children up to the age of two, but the plans now are to get more funding so they can be monitored up to the age of six.

Shelly, like several other speakers at the conference, pointed out that while tens of millions of dollars in federal funds have already been spent on remedial efforts, more - much more - is needed to complete the job.

The purpose of the workshop was to get input from the various agencies and the Navajo families on how to proceed in the future.

"Let's quit talking about it," said Shelly. "Let's get it done."

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