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EPA Very, Very Belatedly Looks At Contaminated Mines In Navajo Nation

In the late 1950′s, the federal government began investigating reports that radiation from uranium ore mines in the Navajo Nation was causing lung cancer deaths. A mere 49 or so years later, the federal government has released its first comprehensive study of the problem. This week the EPA sent to the House oversight committee, the report "Addressing Uranium Contamination In the Navajo Nation."

The New Mexico Independent examines the report and the federal government’s huge task in cleaning abandoned mining sites and purifying contaminated groundwater. EPA, though, appears to still be in the "assessing" phase of the myriad health problems. Coordination amongst EPA, the Dept. of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Indian Health Service doesn’t seem well defined.

Renewed attention to the decades-old problem stems from a Los Angeles Times blockbuster series, Blighted Homeland, that reported how Navajo cancer mortality rates have doubled since the mining started.

Between 1944 and 1986, the federal government hired private contractors to mine four million tons of uranium ore in the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The uranium helped build the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and supplied weapons stockpiles in the arms race with the Soviet Union. But when the arms race slowed the mining sites were abandoned– without being cleaned up. Left behind were piles of radioactive waste and cancer-causing radon in the air. Also, the Navajo nation used some of the left behind mine waste as construction material for their homes.

Since the 1950′s the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Indian Health Service realized they were serious health problems with exposed uranium mines. But cleaning up the sites has always been a low political priority- the problem was described by an Indian Health Service officer in 1986 as a "significant but resource consuming endeavor."

The House oversight committee hasn’t announced its next step. Lacking a powerful lobbying group or influential member of Congress representing their interests, citizens of the Navajo Nation aren’t exactly big players in Washington. So any continued scrutiny of the issue would probably mark an improvement.

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