Navajo To Cleanup Radioactive Material Suspected Of Contributing To Cancer

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During a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week, Navajo tribal officials requested a minimum of $500 million to continue cleanup efforts of reservations exposed to decades-old retroactive material that has resulted in health and environmental damage, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Navajo Nation is the largest American Indian homeland in the U.S. and encompasses parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Times reports. The reservation contains about 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and four shuttered processing mills that produced 3.9 million tons of uranium from 1944 to 1986, mainly for government use. After the uranium was extracted from the soil, operators routinely left the tunnels and shafts to mines and piles of radioactive waste open and exposed. "Meanwhile, Navajo cancer rates doubled and certain birth defects increased," according to the Times (Pasternak, Los Angeles Times, 10/24).

Environmental and health problems after the mining era prompted Navajo tribal leaders to prohibit any new uranium mining on the reservation. However, "tailings" of the radioactive material can be found in the homes of American Indians, livestock watering holes and parts of public highways, the Salt Lake Tribune reports (Burr, Salt Lake Tribune, 10/24). According to the Times, the cleanup efforts of the material "remain fitful and incomplete."

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Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) instructed the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs by December to list the funds and authority needed to complete the cleanup (Los Angeles Times, 10/24). He also called for comprehensive studies on the health risks associated with exposure to the radioactive material, in addition to detailed site assessments. Upon completion of the research, the cleanup should be "initiated and accelerated," he said (Salt Lake Tribune, 10/24).

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"It's been a bipartisan failure for over 40 years," Waxman said, adding, "It's also a modern American tragedy" (Los Angeles Times, 10/24).

Wayne Nastri, administrator of the EPA region that covers the Navajo Nation, said the Navajo government is making cleanup a priority, but the "challenge posed by uranium mine sites in the Navajo Nation will need to be addressed through federal, state and tribal efforts" (Salt Lake Tribune, 10/24).

Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Weekly Health Disparities Report, search the archives. The Kaiser Weekly Health Disparities Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2007 Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.

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