Abandoned uranium mines continue to haunt Navajos on reservation

Brandon Loomis
The Republic | azcentral.com
Johnathan Colorado assists his father, Charley Colorado, 87, who suffers from pulmonary fibrosis, in walking back from the outhouse back to inside their home outside of Gray Mountain on the Navajo Reservation. Because of the pulmonary fibrosis Charley has trouble walking which is complicated by the fact that the family has no indoor plumbing.

CAMERON -- In 1957, Charley Colorado climbed down a uranium mine shaft near his ancestral sheepherding grounds and began hammering at a rock that would power the atomic bomb and help America stare down the Soviets.

Now, Colorado, 87, spends much of his time wedged between a medical oxygen tank and a twin bed, parked in an easy chair before a wood stove at his family's home on the high desert west of Gray Mountain, near Cameron. He has frequent blackouts and trouble breathing.

"We did our part to keep America free!" reads the 2014 Cold War Patriots calendar on the corner wall behind him. A mini U.S. flag juts from a clay pot nearby.

"They (said) that it wasn't dangerous," he wheezed in the Navajo, or Dine, language, "that it wouldn't cause problems.

"I guess that it did."

Decades after America's Cold War uranium binge, the Colorado Plateau remains scarred, poisoning and frightening a people who still live with the radioactive residue of 521 abandoned mines scattered across their reservation's 17.2 million acres, which is larger than West Virginia.

The U.S. promises a thorough cleanup, but at current funding levels, it could take generations to complete.

Anger is rising.

As a young man, Colorado hadn't known quite what he was working with, or why the mine's White managers wore protective suits and masks while he and his Navajo comrades walked away nightly powdered with yellow grains of uranium.

He was a shepherd who grew handy with rock drills — a hard worker who would go on to dangle on a cable and drill into rock cliffs to help build another Southwestern legacy, Glen Canyon Dam.

In the year or so he spent underground mining radioactive rock, his wife, Carol, washed his dusty clothes by hand. She sent him back to work clean on the outside, stained in his lungs.

"They didn't even say nothing," she said in Navajo, translated by daughter Linda. "They didn't tell the people. None of them knew."

A 2000 study published in the journal Health Physics found Navajo uranium miners had a lung-cancer rate nearly 29 times that of Navajos who did not work in the mines. From 1969 to 1993, two-thirds of new lung cancers in Navajo men afflicted the miners.

And the uranium is still a threat.

Old miners are fading, but their children, who grew up drinking from contaminated wells, are falling ill even as their grandchildren play around the pits and piles.

A $1 billion court settlement with one mining company this year raised hopes that serious cleanup will soon begin. But it is only enough to tackle a few dozen of these ghost mines, and neither U.S. nor tribal officials even know whom to blame for most of the rest.

They don't know whom to blame, that is, other than a government that demanded a hazardous payload at any cost.

"There's a moral responsibility for the federal government to find responsible parties for cleanup," said U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., "or to do the work ourselves."

In 2007, while chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Waxman conducted a hearing that set in motion a five-year plan for federal cooperation on cleanup.

A Government Accountability Office audit in May found that the plan had achieved many of its goals, including prioritizing the 43 most hazardous mines, replacing homes that had been built with radioactive materials from mine sites, and delivering safe water to thousands of Navajos who had lacked it.

But the audit found that the plan had failed to identify the full scope and cost of total cleanup, and that the second five-year plan now under development would not do that either.

It remains, according to the audit, "unclear how many 5-year plans would be needed."

When the U.S. needed Navajos to mine uranium for atomic bombs, they went willingly. Decades later, the Navajo Reservation is dotted with signs like this one posted by the Environmental Protection Agency in Church Rock, N.M. There are 521 abandoned uranium mines on the reservations.

Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive rock which, when refined and concentrated, can sustain nuclear fission to fuel power reactors or bombs.

In ore and debris, it emits alpha particle radiation — an energy that cannot penetrate skin and is relatively harmless unless ingested or breathed as dust. Even with internal exposure, most of the toxic material works its way through the body and is expelled within days.

With chronic exposure, though, it can accumulate in the bones and tax the kidneys as they work to expel it. Chronic exposure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is known to damage kidneys and can increase the risks for cancer and liver disease.

Most of the mining occurred between World War II and the 1980s, during the buildup of America's nuclear-weapons stockpile.

At certain mine sites, gamma radiation is well above recommended doses.

Gamma rays are the sort of high-frequency radiation released by a reactor or a detonated atomic bomb, and are more penetrating. They do not require ingestion to be hazardous, and some of the sites with higher readings pose hazards to visitors.

While the link to miners' health is clear, there is not definitive information about how uranium has sickened the Navajo population.

Public-health officials know that chronic uranium exposure is bad, but no one has spent the time and money to learn just how bad in this population.

"I sometimes shake my head and wonder how we've gotten this far without having more answers," said Dr. Charles Wiggins, director of the New Mexico Tumor Registry. "We don't really have a lot of solid studies that document the effects of exposure."

The University of New Mexico and the Southwest Research and Information Center are collaborating on a study of mothers and babies that promises to be the first hard look at the health effects of Navajo uranium exposure.

In early results, University of New Mexico researcher Jennifer Ong said, uranium is ubiquitous in blood and urine samples — including in babies. Nearly every one of the first 208 samples had uranium levels above the 50th percentile for the United States, and 15 percent spiked past the 95th percentile.

"Navajo community members are in fact being exposed to uranium," she said.

Milton Tso, president of the Cameron Chapter of the Navajo Nation, uses a geiger counter to measure radiation on a sweat lodge adjacent to an abandoned uranium mine in Cameron. Nearby soil potentially from the abandoned mine was used to construct the sweat lodge. Readings on the geiger counter showed twice the level of background readings.

A toy Hot Wheels car sat in a dry mud hole this spring, a tiny reminder of the many exposure risks that remain in Navajo country. The depression, like several on the plateau around it, was left by uranium prospectors sampling ore on the hills overlooking Cameron, seat of the local Navajo chapter — a tribal subdivision akin to a county.

Milton Tso, a year into his chapter presidency, hiked past two weathered basketballs and a tangle of all-terrain vehicle tracks to show how intertwined his community and its dirty past remain.

Geiger counters held over some rocks on a nearby hill indicate radiation 10 times higher than background levels — a hazard that has caught the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's attention.

"This is a high priority," Tso said of the prospecting holes, "and we're not sure who owned it."

A toy car lies on the ground at an abandoned uranium mine in Cameron, an indication that children have been playing near the contaminated site in Navajo Reservation.

Unlike most other parts of the reservation, the owners and potential cleanup funders for two dozen mines around Cameron are known: El Paso Natural Gas, acquired by Houston energy company Kinder Morgan in 2012.

The company has agreed to an EPA order that it spend millions of dollars scanning the mines to quantify radioactive hazards, but it maintains that the government should pay for cleanup.

"Because of the United States government's pervasive encouragement of the uranium-mining efforts and its complete control of the weapons-making process," company spokesman Richard Wheatley said in an e-mail, "(the company) believes that the federal government is responsible for the environmental impacts ... including those associated with the mining of uranium for weapons production purposes."

The EPA has so far had success in court squeezing cleanup money from mining companies it can prove responsible. Most notable was a $1 billion settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Co. for past mining by subsidiary Kerr-McGee Corp., which it acquired in 2006.

The money is part of a record $5 billion nationwide settlement for various environmental offenses. The $1 billion for Navajo cleanup targets Kerr-McGee's responsibility at just 49 of the 521 reservation mines.

But the full job will take billions more, experts and regulators agree, and likely decades.

It could take several more years for the Kinder Morgan talks to culminate and Cameron cleanup to start. Across the Navajo Reservation generally, action is much further off. Reservation wide, government lawyers are still following paper trails to determine who dug 443 of the mines.

Even if they find answers, some may lead to small prospecting companies that are long gone, with no corporate heir on which to pin the cleanup.

If that proves true for many of the mines, Congress and the federal agencies will have to vastly increase the $110 million they spent between 2007 and 2012 on science, water delivery, and just one completed mine cleanup in Monument Valley during an initial five-year plan for the reservation.

"The federal government should continue to assess potential contamination and work — to the extent possible — to ensure that responsible parties are held accountable for their prior conduct," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said in a written statement in response to a question about the government's role.

A spokesman said the senator would not address hypotheticals such as whether the U.S. should pay costs that cannot be charged to mining or energy companies.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., believes the federal government has a responsibility that should include a commitment to cleaning up mines for which there is no known responsible party, spokesman Brian Rogers said.

In Washington's challenged fiscal reality, though, Rogers said it may be more productive to push for as many settlements with "bad players" as possible.

"The mining techniques and environmental protections laws used during the early years of the Cold War arms race were far less protective than they are today, and tribes like the Navajo Nation paid an unfair price," Rogers said in an e-mail.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrck, D-Ariz., whose district includes the reservation's vast Arizona swath, said the government should allocate the necessary funds to complete the work first, and then seek reimbursement from any responsible parties that can be tracked down.

"This is about people who are suffering," she said.

Many residents in and around Cameron can point down one dirt road and then another listing family who have died of cancer. But only some of the sickened people, usually the early miners like Colorado, can make an undisputed case for government reparations in the tens of thousands of dollars.

"People are trying to gather check stubs to be eligible for compensation, but they can't find the employers," said Don Yellowman, a Navajo activist who accompanied Tso on his tour of mine sites. "The burden is on them."

His 80-year-old father is on dialysis. He worked at a uranium mill site in Tuba City, "but when your kidneys are no good, people say it's your diet," Yellowman said.

Milton Yazzie,  57, assists his mother, Della Yazzie, 83, who is partially blind, after Milton had a medical check-up at the Sacred Peaks Health Center in Flagstaff. Milton has diabetes and pancreatitis, which along with Della's blindness could be related to uranium exposure from living among abandoned uranium mines. In 2005, three other family members have died from kidney cancer or failure.

The fall of 2005 launched a nine-month spiral of loss for Milton Yazzie and his mother, Della. In September, Yazzie's 53-year-old sister died of kidney cancer.

Then, in November, his 78-year-old father, a former uranium miner, died of kidney failure while Yazzie agonized with him beside his truck at Wupatki National Monument, waiting to meet an ambulance from Flagstaff. The following June, his 58-year-old brother died, also of kidney failure.

Yazzie's home is atop a yellow hill in the rolling spread near Black Falls, a wide riffle in the Little Colorado River when it's running. On his living room wall is a picture of the San Francisco Peaks — sacred ground for the tribe — next to a window with a clear view of the real thing.

The ground around his sheep corral is a jumble of mystery cobbles spilled onto the ground by nature: red and blue agates, yellow gravel and some little hunks of petrified wood.

Down the road is a series of denuded patches in the grasslands — backfilled uranium pits that became soothing pools in the intermittently rainy summers, where family members splashed and played.

"It gets too hot and you just follow your sheep or cattle," Yazzie recalled. "You take a dip and then continue on."

The family also drank from a well a half-mile from home — one that the EPA has since tested and found on the border of violating federal drinking standards for uranium and arsenic. The government has not studied which wells were contaminated by mining, and which have naturally high levels.

Three years ago, Yazzie was diagnosed with pancreatitis.

"It would grab you and freeze you right there," he said, "the pain was so intense."

He also has diabetes, as did his father. Though he confesses to a wild youth that may have affected his health, Yazzie wonders what role his 57-year relationship with the uranium pits and contaminated water have played.

Yazzie knows it would be difficult to prove a link. Even his grandfather, who had been a uranium miner, could not prove to the government's satisfaction that he deserved compensation. He was a medicine man who occasionally smoked a traditional herb known as mountain tobacco during ceremonies, Yazzie said.

That was enough to raise questions about the origins of his eventual lung disease.

Peterson Bell, center, 58, who has diabetes, arthritis and vision impairment, sits and listens during a community meeting to take public testimony for a measure that could enable new uranium mining in the Church Rock, N.M., area at the chapter hall in Church Rock, N.M., on the Navajo Reservation on May 28. The area has numerous abandoned uranium mines that have never been cleaned up.

Navajo Nation Council delegates Leonard Tsosie and Leonard Pete faced a bitter crowd this spring at the chapter hall in Church Rock, N.M. Dozens of residents sat in the folding chairs with folded arms, skeptical of the politicians' support for renewed mining.

Church Rock is the site of two massive uranium waste-rock piles. It is also where a 1979 dam break unleashed one of the biggest radioactive uranium contaminations in U.S. history. Contamination flooded downstream to the Rio Puerco and Gallup, eventually disappearing out of sight and beyond tracking in the aquifer somewhere above the confluence with Arizona's Little Colorado.

Residents waited decades for the companies who stopped digging uranium there in the 1980s to start moving the stuff away. It's a cleanup still in the planning, with General Electric and Anadarko on the hook for much of the cost.

Tsosie and Pete were taking testimony for a measure they backed that could enable new uranium mining. They are on the council's natural-resources committee. Others on the council wanted to bar access for mining.

"This is unreal, gentlemen," said mining opponent Edmund Yazzie, the delegate from Church Rock and no relation to Milton. "The kidneys are going to be affected. Our young kids are going to be affected. Why? We say for the power of money."

Uranium Resources Inc., a Texas company, wants to use an in-ground leaching system to dissolve and extract uranium for power plants. The company controls a private square of land surrounded by reservation land, and it wants a right of way to access it.

Leonard Tsosie (right) of the council's natural resources committee speaks during a meeting in Church Rock, N.M., on May 28, 2014, to take public testimony for a measure that could enable new uranium mining in the area.

During a break outside the hall, company environmental-affairs Vice President Mark Pelizza said the new technology leaves "nowhere close" to the same mess as old pits and tunnels — mines that he points out were mostly dug before the EPA and environmental regulations even existed.

"It doesn't help, I don't think, to have a direct comparison of the past with the future," he said.

Old wounds are reopening elsewhere, as well. A mine near the Grand Canyon's North Rim is back in business after a long lull in uranium prices, and three others straddling the national park could reopen — all of which need to truck their ore across the reservation to a mill in Blanding, Utah.

Mine opponents at the Church Rock meeting grumbled about the company's overtures, including the donation of 200 turkeys to chapter officials to distribute to residents at Thanksgiving.

Pelizza defended the gifts.

"You have people that may go without at the holidays," he said in an interview. "I just think that's a good thing to do."

As he said it, a man walked by shouting at him: "No uranium! You hear? And get off this land, too."

Inside, Tsosie reminded the crowd that the tribe survives on money from its natural resources such as coal, which is coming under increasing regulatory scrutiny for its climate effects.

Pete wondered aloud whether the tribe could remain afloat if it waited for full cleanup before seeking new revenue deals such as what the mine might offer.

"If we're going to say, 'No mining, no mining, no mining until this is all done,' are we chasing a big rainbow with no pot of gold at the end?" he said.

"If cleanup takes 50 years, 75 years, 100 years, and we don't have the revenue to survive, what happens?"

Bertha Nez rose and wept.

"We were born first, then the mines came," she cried. "They messed the place up.

"Please," she begged the delegates, "help us. No uranium."

Charley Colorado, 87, who has pulmonary fibrosis, breathes oxygen through a respirator at his home outside of Gray Mountain on the Navajo Reservation. Colorado worked at a uranium mine in the late 1950s near Cameron. "They (said) it wasn't dangerous," he said through a translator. Colorado has received compensation and currently receives health care paid for from the U.S. Department of Labor for his uranium mining services.

For those already clearly and irretrievably sickened by uranium, such as ailing former miner Charley Colorado, the government attempts to ease pain and suffering.

In the 1990s, due to his mining service, he qualified for compensation and got the first of three payments; $10,000, then $50,000, then $20,000, according to his family.

Then, according to a doctor's report last summer, he developed pulmonary fibrosis and qualified for continuing home health assistance from the U.S. Department of Labor. He gets 12 hours of home health-aide assistance daily, some provided by a traveling nurse and some by family members who are reimbursed for their care.

Colorado needs oxygen and inhaled steroids for relief, the doctor wrote. His lungs are worsening, and he's falling more frequently.

Pulmonary fibrosis is common among the miners, said nurse Gary Foster when he stopped at Colorado's home to check on Charley one afternoon last winter. At 87, Colorado has outlived most miners.

"If they don't lose their ability to breathe," he said, "they're all going to get cancer."

Others he has treated succumbed in their 70s. Also typical among his patients across the reservation: multiple-organ failure, kidney disease, dialysis.

"All of the patients I've dealt with, they've had to have it explained to them why they're sick," he said. "They don't understand the concept of it sitting in their lungs and staying there forever."

The home is perched on an ochre hill of sparse grasses and bare dirt, patrolled by a ragged band of wary dogs. On that day, it smelled of bleach doused on the hard floor. Two day-old lambs mewed from a cardboard box under the wood stove, pleading for milk. The family was looking to give them away.

Dogs still trail sheep home to shelter in the evenings, but Colorado hasn't been able to follow in five years.

Navajo miners were lured into the ground not just by wages, but by an appeal for them to defend their homeland, said Chris Shuey, a New Mexico public-health researcher who has befriended many of these men over the years. Navajos have a proud tradition of armed service, he said, and the Cold War-era government capitalized on it.

Tony Hood, a Church Rock Navajo who is a Vietnam-era veteran, said his family's military service stands at four generations.

"They wanted to carry on that tradition of being a warrior," he said, "maintaining that warrior mentality."

Yet now, he said, he feels betrayed by a government that is too bogged down by regulations to act decisively to make his community safe.

The neglect of dangerous mine wastes, Shuey said, is "an injustice compounded over the decades."

The government is spending millions of dollars a year, but not the billions that cleanup will take. It's a major improvement from 2007, Rep. Waxman said, when agencies such as the EPA, the Indian Health Service and Housing and Energy departments were not working together.

Now, he said, there's a concerted effort and momentum, even if it relies on lawyers digging through records to locate and fine responsible mining companies.

"We're confident we'll get enough money," EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said. In the meantime, the agency will work on ensuring the areas are properly marked with caution signs and that community members are attuned to the risks.

America's debt to the Navajos began piling up before the mining, when the Navajo Code Talkers developed and used a Dine-based code that helped defeat the Empire of Japan, Blumenfeld said.

"These folks helped win World War II and then they helped win the Cold War," he said, "and the least we can do is get these abandoned uranium mines cleaned up."