From 1984 through 1995, the Department of Energy spent $240 million to cover tailing piles at the old uranium mills as part of a nationwide program. Tailings are the fine sand left over when ore is ground up to extract uranium. They retain most of the radioactivity and give off large quantities of radon, an odorless, cancer-causing gas.
Over the last decade, the tribe has used money from a federal mine-reclamation fund to seal entrances and fill pits at most of the old mines. But the cleanup was incomplete. At many of the sites, radioactive rubble lies along cliffs and on hillsides.
Erosion compounds the problem. Desert winds constantly wear away the earthen caps at the mines, exposing chunks of radioactive ore. Gullies eat into buried pit mines, allowing rainwater to course through irradiated soil and contaminate groundwater.
Now, with a renewed push for nuclear power driving up uranium prices, the mining industry wants to extract more from the still-vast Navajo reserve. Tribal leaders are resisting.
By treaty and law, the United States is responsible for the tribe's welfare, Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. noted. But the government's response to the Cold War contamination has been half-hearted, he said.
"It's an emergency that is not being treated like an emergency," he said. "Where is our guardian?"
On their own
In 1975, Joseph M. Hans Jr., an EPA radiation expert, was sent to inspect an abandoned uranium-processing plant in Cane Valley, on Navajo territory near the Arizona-Utah line.
Vanadium Corp. of America had operated the plant and an adjacent pit mine in the 1950s. A successor company, Foote Mineral, closed everything down in 1969. Federal mining inspector Howard B. Nickelson reported that the local manager had assured him that "the area would be cleaned up. No final inspection is planned."
But Foote left behind piles of tailings and mine rubble.
When Hans arrived, Congress was weighing the proposal to cover tailings at closed uranium mills across the country. The EPA was assessing the scope of the task.
As Hans worked, he noticed a small community of hand-built houses nearby. He began to worry that the residents might have used Foote's leftovers as construction material. A few months later, he and some EPA colleagues returned with hand-held radiation scanners, air samplers and other equipment.
Berlinda Cly was 9 when the inspectors visited the home where she lived with her parents and eight siblings. "The meter went BEEEEP," she recalled.
To Hans' dismay, at least 17 of 37 homes tested contained radioactive ore or tailings.
Hans said he wrote to EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., recommending that the agency clean up the most contaminated homes or relocate the occupants. "You've got two risks — gamma radiation and you've got radon," he recalled. "It wasn't acceptable."
His higher-ups said no.
"I still felt uncomfortable," Hans said, so he urged the Indian Health Service to act. The response was the same.
"Finally, we got the message," said Hans, now retired and living in Las Vegas. "We didn't have the money to go decontaminating sites."