Superfund could go after mining companies to pay for cleanups. The coal program couldn't.

But the coal-fee money had one big advantage: It was readily available.

As for Superfund, even if the tribe put King Tutt Mesa on the national priority list, EPA's pursuit of the polluters could get tied up in court for years. The hundreds of other Superfund candidates on the reservation faced even longer delays, if they made the list at all.

In May 1994, the Navajos finished sealing entrances to the reservation's coal mines. The Interior Department certified that the tribe could start using coal money to fill uranium mines.

In the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Ariz., the time had come to make a choice.

Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands, the tribal unit that sealed old mines, was ready to start work on King Tutt "right then and there," recalled Stanley Edison, a chemist for the Navajo environmental agency.

"We'd been waiting, and the residents had been waiting," he said.

A partial cleanup trumped none at all, Navajo officials decided.

*

Starting over

Over the next decade, the tribe's workers sealed about 900 uranium mines, at a cost of more than $25 million. The achievement was substantial: Most of the old pits and shafts no longer presented a temptation to people and animals seeking shelter and water.

But Madeline Roanhorse, head of the Abandoned Mine Lands department, noted at a 2004 meeting in Washington that her staff was charged with fixing "physical hazards, not subsurface contamination."

Another problem is that erosion keeps undoing the tribe's work. In the desert, drought and wind continually strip the earthen covers off the mines and waste piles, exposing radioactive material. The tribe's maintenance workers have trouble keeping up with this wearing-away. The task will become harder if Congress approves a proposal to shift more coal-fee money to eastern states.

King Tutt Mesa reflects the limitations of the coal-fee program. Tribal workers have sealed the many shafts and tunnels, but polluted groundwater remains, and condemned homes, built with radioactive waste, still stand nearby.

So the effort to get the site listed for Superfund action is starting over.

On hearing this, Hoskie, now back in the Denver office of the EPA, sighed loudly. "Oh, my goodness," she said. "I don't think that the [coal-fee] reclamation is enough…. It's so bureaucratic. Why can't we rise above it?"

In 1999, Phelps Dodge Corp. swallowed the vestiges of Vanadium Corp. of America. Phelps Dodge is currently spending millions of dollars to clean up 10 former Vanadium Corp. uranium sites in remote canyons in Colorado and Utah. The company acted at the urging of the U. S. Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, which were concerned about the safety of hikers and campers.

Whenever Phelps Dodge is informed of such health hazards, "we will of course take responsible action," company spokesman Kenneth Vaughn said.

Asked why the firm was not cleaning King Tutt Mesa or other Vanadium Corp. sites on the Navajo reservation, Vaughn said there was a simple explanation:

"No one asked."