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The legacy of uranium on the Navajo reservation

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

In 1979, a dam at a uranium mine collapsed. More than 90 million gallons of radioactive waste shot down the Rio Puerco.

It was the largest release of radioactive material in United States history. And it happened in Church Rock, on the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico.

No comprehensive health studies were done to learn how the spill might have affected people living nearby.

Now, Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Edward J. Markey, Henry A. Waxman, and Frank Pallone are asking for a formal update on a study that Congress authorized four years ago.

The Navajo Birth Cohort study, headed up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would follow 1,500 pregnant women, assess their exposure to uranium, and then study if their children suffer from birth defects or developmental disorders.

According to Luján, that study is important to New Mexicans, particularly in light of the Church Rock incident.

“They compared this to Three Mile Island, but because it was in a remote area—this was with the Navajo Nation—it did not receive the attention that it deserved,” he says. “Sadly, we have not seen, in New Mexico, the kind of support for cleanup that should exist.”

But the legacy of uranium contamination doesn't begin or end with Church Rock. On the Navajo reservation, the federal government and private corporations mined uranium for more than 40 years, until the mid-1980s. Today, there are more than 500 abandoned uranium mines across the reservation.

Leona Morgan is with the group Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining. She sees firsthand how abandoned mines still affect Navajo families. The mines themselves may be fenced off, she says, but families still live in close proximity to them. People draw drinking water from nearby, graze their sheep, and grow crops.

But even as the Navajo people deal with a legacy of uranium mining on the reservation, they are also worried about new development.

In 2005, the tribe banned uranium mining from the reservation. But thanks to some jurisdictional disputes, four new mines are planned for within the reservation’s boundaries.

That has the Navajo and many environmentalists worried about groundwater contamination.

And for Morgan, it goes beyond drinking water and jurisdictional issues.

The Navajo are a land-based people, she says: “If these things hurt the land, it’s going to affect how we live—culturally—forever.”