The Southern California lawyer who successfully prosecuted top Enron executives has been hired by the Navajo tribal government to seek a full cleanup of the old uranium mines contaminating the country's largest reservation.
John C. Hueston, who gained fame for his questioning of Enron founder Kenneth L. Lay, contacted the tribe in November after reading articles in The Times about the poisoning of the Navajo homeland as the government mined uranium for use in nuclear weapons. The reports detailed how residents had been exposed to radiation and toxic heavy metals in their air, water, soil and even the walls and floors of their homes.
The tribe retained the former federal prosecutor Thursday to coordinate an effort to finish the cleanup and eventually to help Navajos made ill by exposure. Hueston, whose wife is Navajo, recently returned to private practice at Irell & Manella, which is based in Los Angeles and Newport Beach.
"There's a sense of urgency now, of no more excuses," Hueston said, pledging to work toward "a historic settlement and, if necessary, court action." He said he would try to persuade the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to document the remaining hazards, and the uranium industry to finance repair of that damage.
The tribe also wants to find permanent remedies for hundreds of reclaimed mines that are once more radioactive because of erosion.
More than 1,000 old uranium mines and four abandoned processing mills are scattered across the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. From 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were extracted by private companies from the region.
As the Cold War threat diminished and the boom slowed, federal inspectors let the companies leave without sealing mine portals, filling in pits or removing waste. The Navajos' subsequent pleas for help prompted government surveys showing dangerous levels of uranium and other toxics, but little was done about it.
"We hope to be the moving force this time," said Navajo Atty. Gen. Louis Denetsosie. "We can't wait for them to do it for us."
EPA representatives are to meet in March with Hueston and tribal attorneys.
The federal agency has said it didn't have the funds to address the problems. Hueston said if the EPA couldn't find the funds, he would ask Congress for help. He said he would also press uranium companies to contribute to "a permanent and effective cleanup."