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Navajos seek funds to clear uranium contamination

Environmental IssuesNational GovernmentNuclear PowerGovernmentMetal and MineralEnvironmental CleanupMining

Navajo tribal officials asked Congress on Tuesday for at least $500 million to finish cleaning up lingering contamination on the Navajo reservation in the American Southwest from Cold War-era uranium mining, an industry nurtured by its only customer until 1971: the United States government.

The tribe also sought a moratorium on new mining in Navajo country, which extends beyond the formal reservation borders into New Mexico, until environmental damage from the last round is repaired.

The requests came at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, marked by angry exchanges between the members and officials from five federal agencies with varying degrees of responsibility for protecting Navajo health and the environment.

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) instructed the agencies -- the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- to return in December with a list of the money and authority they need to finally finish the job.

"It's been a bipartisan failure for over 40 years," Waxman said. "It's also a modern American tragedy."

Waxman scheduled the hearing in response to a Los Angeles Times series, published last year, detailing the effects of mine waste on Navajos who built their homes with it, played in it and regularly drank toxic water for decades. Exposure continues today, as cleanup efforts remain fitful and incomplete.

The nation's largest tribal homeland, encompassing parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, contains about 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and four old processing mills. From 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were blasted from Navajo soil, nearly all of it for nuclear bombs. After 1971, utilities also bought uranium for nuclear power plants.

The mine operators often left behind open tunnels, shafts and piles of radioactive waste. Federal inspectors knew of the hazards but seldom intervened. Meanwhile, Navajo cancer rates doubled and certain birth defects increased.

Tuesday's hearing came almost 14 years after the House Natural Resources Committee heard a plea from the tribe's frustrated environment director for "speedy, thorough and permanent remediation of all sites."

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) called on agencies to "focus and accelerate clean-up efforts," capping the 40 most dangerous open mines, limiting groundwater contamination and conducting human-health surveys.

Some House members were visibly displeased by some of the responses to their questions. When EPA Regional Administrator Wayne Nastri said he needed "time" to protect a Navajo community from a radioactive waste pile abandoned 25 years ago, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) snapped: "Time passes, Mr. Nastri. People get sick. They get bone cancer, they get leukemia while we wait."

Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) asked BIA Director Jerry Gidner if he believed that the United States had fulfilled its pledge to protect the Navajos' welfare.

"That's hard to say," Gidner answered.

"Hard to say?" Udall said. "I would think that you'd be outraged."

judy.pasternak@latimes.com

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