Next, tribal officials considered suing the mining companies. But a legal consultant advised that victory was unlikely because the firms had operated and departed with government approval.
Running short of options, the tribe pinned its hopes on Superfund.
The 1980 law gave the EPA power to identify the worst toxic-waste sites and force polluters to pay for cleanup, health studies, clinics, maintenance and monitoring. If no polluters could be found, EPA could pay for the cleanup from its $1.6-billion trust.
To get a site on Superfund's priority list, the tribe had to document the pollution. So staff members of the Navajo environmental commission, established in 1972, went from mine to mine, assessing contamination levels.
As they drove near New Mexico's Haystack Butte in 1990, their radiation detector began beeping. They determined that the radiation was coming from two mining complexes just outside the reservation. More than 50 Navajos lived within half a mile. Inspectors from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared a health emergency.
Determining who was responsible for the contamination proved arduous. Most of the mine operators had vanished. The Department of Energy paid to clean a part of the site once leased by the Atomic Energy Commission. Another portion was owned by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. A subsidiary had mined there, and the railroad agreed to pay for cleanup.
The EPA did not pursue any other companies and ultimately paid for the balance of the cleanup — $500,000. The work was finished in 1992.
Sadie Hoskie, then the Navajo environmental administrator, figured there had to be another way. Restoring the reservation one mine at a time would take too long.
"We were concerned about the health impacts on the people," recalled Hoskie, who was working for the Navajos while on leave from a position at the EPA. "Their daily lives were not as safe as they believed."
In 1993, Hoskie went to Washington to complain. She told members of two House subcommittees that the Navajos wanted "speedy, thorough and permanent remediation of all sites."
Of 42 abandoned mines investigated by her staff, 28 were hazardous under Superfund criteria. But none had made it onto the national priority list — a sought-after status that all but assured the EPA would put its money and muscle behind a cleanup.
The reservation's low population density worked against the Navajos in the Superfund ranking system. The process "has proven a failure and must be changed," Hoskie said.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) criticized the "piecemeal and uncoordinated approach" that "fails to eliminate the radiation health hazard."
Bill Richardson, then a Democratic congressman from New Mexico and now the state's governor, said the work at Haystack Butte was "all well and good, but "there must be a final and complete way to address the problems of cleanup."