There's an old uranium mine on rancher Larry Gordy's grazing land near Cameron, Ariz. Like hundreds of other abandoned mines in the Navajo Nation, the United States' largest Indian reservation, it looks as if it might still be in use—tailings, or waste products of uranium processing, are still piled everywhere, and the land isn't fenced off. "It looks like Mars," said Marsha Monestersky, program director of Forgotten People, an advocacy organization for the western region of the vast Navajo Nation, which covers 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently embroiled in a massive effort to assess 520 open abandoned uranium mines all over the vast reservation. (Forgotten People says there are even more mines on Navajo land: about 1,300.) Earlier this month, the cleanup got a boost from a bankruptcy settlement with Oklahoma City-based chemical company Tronox Inc., which will give federal and Navajo Nation officials $14.5 million to address the reservation's uranium contamination.
During the Cold War, private companies such as Tronox's former parent company, Kerr-McGee Corp., operated uranium mines under U.S. government contracts, removing four million tons of ore that went into making nuclear weapons and fuel. When demand dried up with the end of the era, companies simply abandoned their mines as they were.
Remediation work started 10 years ago, when the EPA mapped the mines by investigating company records and surveying the land with helicopters equipped with radiation detectors. The agency is now halfway through visiting mines to determine their radiation levels. "It's an overwhelming problem," said Clancy Tenley, EPA assistant director for the region.
The mines expose Navajo Nation residents to uranium through airborne dust and contaminated drinking water. Many residents' homes were built using mud and rocks near mines, and some of that building material is radioactive. There are few published studies on the effects of uranium mines on nearby residents, but researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of New Mexico are working on health assessments, according to EPA officials. Researchers have known for decades that uranium exposure increases the risk of lung and bone cancers and kidney damage.
In July, the leaders of Forgotten People pushed the EPA to begin cleanup in Cameron because they were worried about the effects of the mines there on ranchers like Gordy, whose cattle drink and graze on uranium-contaminated land. Their tussle with the agency highlights the difficulties the EPA faces in all stages of its cleanup, which will likely take decades. The uranium mine Gordy found wasn't even included in the EPA's original atlas. "We're grateful to [Monestersky] for pointing that out to us," said Tenley, the agency spokesman. He initially said the EPA would visit the site within six months but publicity over conditions there apparently prompted a change of heart.
Instead, EPA contractors assessed the site November 9. A scientist who participated wouldn't discuss what he found without EPA officials present, and agency officials couldn't be reached for comment. However, Lee Greer, a biologist from La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., was part of a conference call about the assessment's results. Greer has been working with Forgotten People to record radiation levels at sites that interest the advocacy group. He said the EPA contractors found radiation levels at the mine that were higher than the EPA's Geiger counters could measure.