Payne had never seen the pits before. "I was amazed by the sheer size of the things," he said.
The tribe, Payne wrote, "must mount a concerted program to restrict access of livestock to the heavily contaminated pits and impoundments."
Charles A. Reaux, a regional IHS official, knew animals were not the only ones at risk; in a 1986 memo, he had written of "suspected human use" of the pit waters.
Reaux was reluctant to commit his agency's resources to uranium-related health hazards because the cost seemed open-ended. But on reading Payne's findings, he recommended that the health service "get involved in determining if there are contaminated water sites in Cameron and other areas," adding that the IHS "may also have to support this effort financially."
The suggestion died quietly.
Neither the tribe nor the IHS mounted the educational campaign urged by Payne. Navajos who were drinking from the pits or watering their animals there had no reason to stop.
Now retired and living in Maine, Payne says the government's inaction still bothers him.
The IHS "should have told them, and they should have found the money to give them water that was safe to drink," he said. "You don't just stick your head in the sand."
Staff members of the tribe's environmental commission showed photos of the water-filled pits in Cameron and elsewhere to their director, Harold Tso, a radio-chemist
Tso, now 68, said he was overwhelmed by other urgent problems, such as the piles of radioactive waste at old uranium-processing mills.
"I wanted to get out there" to see the pits, he said, "but I never did."
Focus on genetics
Medical research continued to focus on a genetic explanation for the mysterious wasting disease. In February 1990, the journal Neurology published an article on possible causes of Navajo neuropathy.
"No common environmental factors (i.e., water source, heavy metal exposure, toxin exposure, family occupation) have been discovered," the report said.
But the research team did not fully consider the possible role of uranium mining.
Steve Helgerson, then senior epidemiologist at the IHS, designed the study and was one of the authors. In a recent interview, he said the scientists ruled out a water source as the cause of the illness because no single well supplied all the affected families. The researchers did not explore whether the various water sources shared common contaminants.
Patients were screened for exposure to various heavy metals but not uranium. The scientists rejected "toxin exposure" as a possible cause because there was "no organized pesticide use out there," Helgerson said.
The only time uranium came up, he said, was in regard to "family occupation." Someone wondered whether the fathers had been miners and whether uranium exposure might have affected their genes.