Uranium contamination on Navajo land issue finally makes its way to Congress - It's about time!

Oct. 30, 2007


Many have probably read about the testimony in recent Congressional hearings presented to Rep. Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, regarding the legacy of uranium contamination on Navajo land. For decades, the Navajo Nation and many grassroots organizations have been trying to address this human tragedy in real terms-with only marginal success.

Hopefully, one of the defining moments of this struggle took place last week. As one of the attorneys representing the Navajo Nation on the uranium contamination issue, I had the privilege of working with the Navajo delegation to help prepare them for this hearing. I was also honored to attend the hearing in Washington, D.C. and to monitor the testimony and questions firsthand. In spite of ongoing discussions with the BIA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and limited clean up of specific areas, this was the first sense I had that something meaningful may actually be accomplished - that this tragic legacy of contamination may eventually be addressed on a large scale.

It was, apparently, an L.A. Times article from November 2006 that first alerted Chairman Waxman to the plight of the Navajo - not the fact that the federal government had utterly failed to address this mess for decades. As outlined in the article, "from 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were chiseled and blasted from the mountains and plains. The mines provided uranium for the Manhattan project, the top-secret effort to develop an atomic bomb ... private companies operated the mines, but the U.S. government was the sole customer.... As the Cold War threat gradually diminished over the next two decades, more than 1,000 mines and four processing mills on tribal land shut down." The radioactive waste and debris from these operations, however, largely remains. People live in and around uranium-contaminated areas. Livestock grazes and children play amongst radioactive waste and debris. There is a palpable threat of radioactive contamination to the ground water in many areas.

At the hearing, Edith Hood, while choking back tears, talked about the mining waste near her home in the Church Rock area, and the sickness and illnesses that plagued her and her family. These sentiments were echoed by Larry King and Ray Manygoats. Phil Harrison, although a Navajo Nation Council Delegate, testified as to his personal experience with uranium contamination. George Arthur, also a Council Delegate, testified in his capacity as the Chairman of the Navajo Natural Resources Committee. Mr. Arthur made it clear to the Committee that enough study has been done. It was now time for the federal government to take action to address this ongoing human tragedy. Stephen Etsity, the head of the Navajo EPA, managed to bring Navajo soil (from the Tuba City area) into the hearing chambers, where he used a device to demonstrate the existence of gamma radiation.

It was, however, the Committee's questioning of government officials following the Navajo testimony that truly shed light on the process. Chairman Waxman led the charge, berating officials from EPA, DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Indian Health Services (IHS) and BIA. Waxman asked what these agencies needed to make this situation right. He also commanded that the parties come back before the Committee on Dec. 12 to discuss what, if any, progress has been made. I must add, however, that I was also impressed with the passion and questioning of Congressman Udall from New Mexico as he pressed the head of the BIA as to his understanding of the government's trust responsibility to the tribes. Congresswoman McCollum from Minnesota was also among the representatives who presented a strong showing of support for the Navajo Nation.

Although skepticism in matters such as these is usually the rule, I left the hearing with a feeling of hope. I am hopeful that Congress will follow through on the journey it has apparently committed to beginning. As a candidate for Arizona's Congressional District 1, not just an attorney helping to represent the Navajo Nation, one of my priorities has been and will continue to be to address this ongoing human tragedy on the Navajo Nation.

Howard M. Shanker



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