An “Overwhelming Problem” in the Navajo Nation

A look at one uranium mine shows how difficult it will be to clean up the reservation’s hundreds of abandoned Cold War-era mines

December 30, 2010

There’s an old uranium mine on rancher Larry Gordy’s grazing land near Cameron, Arizona. 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 like Tronox’s 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.

The remediation work started ten years ago, when the EPA mapped the mines by investigating company records and surveying the land with helicopters equipped with radiation detectors. They are 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 began pushing 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, California, 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.

The accelerated assessment of Gordy’s ranch came six days after Greer presented his radiation results from the site to the Geological Society of America. A geologist who was present at the society meeting said that, based on Greer’s findings, a cleanup of the mine should be a high priority. “The sooner, the better,” said Michael Phillips, a professor at Illinois Valley Community College. Because the uranium at this mine is on the surface of the land, people and animals are more likely to come in contact with it, he added.

But the preliminary assessment of the site is just the first step on a long road to a cleanup that is years and possibly even decades away. The time lag between an assessment and a remediation job depends on what scientists find at a particular mine, said Andrew Bain, EPA remediation project manager. The U.S.’s five-year plan for the Navajo Nation’s uranium mines only covers assessment, not cleanup.  The EPA started remediating the reservation’s largest mine, the Northeast Church Rock Mine in New Mexico, in 2005, and doesn’t expect to finish until 2019. “We have no estimate for how long it’ll take to clean up all the mines,” Tenley said.

As for the price tag, the recent Tronox settlement will only cover a fraction of the overall cleanup. Just assessing the uranium mines in the Navajo Nation costs the EPA about $12 million every year, said Tenley. Remediation would cost more, he added. How much more? “In the hundreds of millions,” he said.

All this means a long wait for residents like Gordy, though they’ve already waited more than twenty years since the close of the Cold War. “It’s taking forever to get it cleaned up,” said Don Yellowman, president of Forgotten People. “It seems like everyone’s aware but nobody’s taking notice. We don’t understand.”

About the Author

Francie Diep

Francie Diep holds her B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she took as many science classes as she could in between her major requirements. After graduating, she worked as a TA for biochemistry and functional genomics labs at UCLA. After three years at the bench and chalkboard, she is eager to put her writing skills back to work reporting science stories.



“…EPA contractors found radiation levels at the mine that were higher than the EPA’s Geiger counters could measure.”

Since the typical hand-held radiation detector (like those issued to Civil Defense agencies) can display in excess of 110 mR/hour, one has to question just what the above comment about, “…off the scale…” refers to?

EPA survey results of Uranium mining site ponds indicate average radiation of only 30 pCi/g (considered a low level).

This article lacks core scientific evidence, and is alarmist, rather than helpful to the citizens. Our citizens need to be provided hard evidence, and figures referenced to the actual annual exposure to all environmental radiation. Typical adult Americans receive 360 mrem of radiation per year. You get irradiated from the Sun, from the soil, from water, from food and myriad other naturally occurring sources, in addition to any man-made sources.

In some parts of the world, naturally occurring geologic deposits create locally higher levels of radiation. For example, lay on the black sand beaches in part of Brazil, and you will receive about 400 mrem of exposure, in just two hours. Some plants that grow in soil containing natural, radioactive rocks, will produce their own “xray” when laid across photographic film.

There seems to be a great deal of emotional blather about Uranium mining, but few significant points of data that show any adverse health effects to populations adjacent to a mining site.

Virginia is planning on staring Uranium mining soon, so perhaps that site can get a comprehensive survey of the existing radiation levels in the air, soil and water, and over the years of the mining, we can collect samples from the same sites used in the pre-mining survey, to show if any increase in radiation occurs, that can be attributed to the mining operation.

Denise Mahar says:

J Tyler Ballance@2:06pm, tell that to the Navajos who are undergoing chemo and bone marrow transplants because of their cancer bud.

J. Tyler Ballance needs to get his/her head out of the yellowcake!!

PSST! Don’t forget to take your children with you….

greg meyerson says:

but two and three, you have no numbers or analysis of causes.

uranium is very weakly radiotoxic and to evaluate its chemical toxicity in air and water, you need numbers and you need to compare these numbers to some standard.

and if the problem is radon gas (for elevated levels of radiation), say so. don’t imply it’s uranium. and tell us what the elevated levels are in millirem.

the first writer is correct about the lack of scientific evidence.

joan sellers says:

I don’t think the point of the article was to arouse an organic chemistry conversation. It is always convenient to hide behind the science and cast webs of deception from that point of view. The point is that the Native Americans are a Forgotten People. Why haven’t good scientists like yourself gone out 20 years ago and used your knowledge to help a people whose land was dug up to pull up one the most DNA offensive substances, and consequently others, known to man? Unless you’re ready to get up off the computer chair, organize and seek the truth with your scientific knowledge, keep your comments to yourself.

Val Hughes says:

CHEERS TO ALL WHO HAVE COMMENTED AGAINST URANIUM MINES AND CORPORATELY HIRED SO CALLED SCIENTISTS! I am with you JOAN SELLERS, ELAINE HUGHES etc. YOU are telling it exactly the way it needs to be told! ‘Scientists’ do what they are hired to do for a paycheck, do they sleep at night? That is another issue. I hope not! GRRRRRRRRR, they anger billions on their “Computor Thrones”, what: TOO MUCH UNIVERSITY TO HAVE A FAMILY or CARE FOR THEM?????? GO FIGURE!

Forgotten People appreciates our partnership with academic institutions and the US Environmental Protection Agency to address a legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. In November, 2010, following a presentation at the Geological Society of America (GSA) in Denver, CO, Forgotten People met with a US EPA Superfund Contractor that maxed out his Geiger Counter at over a million counts a minute at an abandoned un-remediated mill and mine in the wetlands of the Little CO River in SE Cameron. Background readings in the area are between 50-100 counts a minute. Across the wash in Black Falls and Box Springs, the US EPA found all the drinking water supplies exceed safe drinking water standards for uranium and arsenic. In January, 2010, the Navajo Nation issued a historic declaration of state of public health emergency in the region but a US EPA funded water hauling truck that was supposed to start delivering safe drinking water last March still has not arrived. Many of the people are still drinking contaminated water because they have no choice and are suffering from and dying of cancer.

In 2007, a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report found that the EPA had done little to address the issue and identified the problem as a failure to provide environmental justice as required under law. In Congressional hearings, Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., decried the lack of work on restoring the land on the Navajo reservation. He said, “If a fraction of the deadly contamination the Navajos live with every day had been in Beverly Hills or any wealthy community, it would have been cleaned up immediately. But there’s a different standard applied to the Navajo land… while time passes, people get sick, people die, people develop kidney disease, children, babies are born with birth defects, bone cancer develops and gets worse, lung cancer, leukemia, while we wait”

Forgotten People believes we cannot resolve uranium contamination and remediation issues without addressing the impacts of a 43-year US government imposed Bennett Freeze that denied people infrastructure and piped water. The communities Forgotten People serves are spread over almost 2 million acres of remote desert terrain in the western portion of the Navajo Nation. Only 3 percent of the families in these communities have electricity and only 10 percent have running water (HR5168, 2004). Now is the time for action and remediation to ensure the US EPA cleans up these sites. For more information, please check out our website at: http://www.forgottennavajopeople.org

I met the late Dr. Radha R. Roy, professor of physics emeritus, in 1981. the Roy Process invention to neutralize and eliminate nuclear waste to zero radioactivity, and create electricity, made worldwide news. The Roy process also reduces mine tailings, depleted uranium ordinance BEFORE it is exploded, plutonium 239 warheads, gaurantee international security, and create many hign paying jobs. Dr. Roy proved this cost-effective invention when Three Mile Island partial meltdown occured March 28, 1979.

1n 1982 President Ronald Reagan made ‘geologic isolation’ burial of nuclear waste, federal policy. See:

The Roy Process For Neutralizing Nuclear Waste: Part 3

Invisible and deadly radiation, natural and man-made, causes permanent DNA damage.
Depleted Uranium:
The Trojan Horse of Nuclear War
LEUREN MORET / World Affairs – The Journal of International Issues 1jul04
[More by Leuren Moret begin_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting]

Click on red arrow to listen –
Leuren Moret –


Dr. Doug Rokke –


Dennis Kyne



Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

The use of depleted uranium weaponry by the United States, defying all international treaties, will slowly annihilate all species on earth including the human species, and yet this country continues to do so with full knowledge of its destructive potential.


Since 1991, the United States has staged four wars using depleted uranium weaponry, illegal under all international treaties, conventions and agreements, as well as under the US military law. The continued use of this illegal radioactive weaponry, which has already contaminated vast regions with low level radiation and will contaminate other parts of the world over time, is indeed a world affair and an international issue. The deeper purpose is revealed by comparing regions now contaminated with depleted uranium — from Egypt, the Middle East, Central Asia and the northern half of India — to the US geostrategic imperatives described in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1997 book The Grand Chessboard.

greg meyerson says:

the war against iraq was a great crime.

but you still have to know what you’re talking about with DU, a weak, very weak radiotoxin, which does its greatest damage if aerosolized or if ingested in great quantities and deposited in the kidney.

as far as radiation doing dna damage, natural radiation varies greatly even in the u.s., from 100 to 1700 mrem/year on average. there is no evidence of increasing cancer incidence due to these variations.

read up on hormetic effects, which compensate for breaks in DNA caused by radiation particles.

I read a christian science monitor article on du in iraq that confused contact dose(dose right at the source) with average dose, an absurd mistake, and tried to scare the shit out of people with scary sounding numbers from DU shells’ radioemissions.

9830 disintegrations per minute from a pile of DU dust!! 300 times background levels!! turns out that this amounts to 163 disintegrations per second, or 163 becquerels. we get 200 bq from 3.6 lbs of bananas, folks. I know you must think this basic science comes from corporations and the pentagon, but it doesn’t. it’s from, like, chemistry for dummies.

somebody called me a scientist and stereotyped scientists as evil and in the pay of blah blah blah.

but of course you then rely on your own scientists to say what you want to hear. In fact, I am a Marxist Professor of English who teaches at an HBCU (historically black college or university).

We need nuclear power, fourth generation (which does not need interestingly to mine and mill uranium because it can burn all of our DU stocks–instead of shooting them at Iraqis). there are many reasons for this (solar and wind cannot overcome the problems of intermittency, dilution and unreliability–compare france and denmark for grams of C02/kwh. France is 7 times cleaner in its electricity grid), but the point is that people’s ignorance about how radiation works prevents them from understanding shit about energy. NP equals DU equals imperialism and the genocide of native peoples. near total ignorance.

No!! capitalism equals imperialism and the genocide of native peoples. Long half lives(like U 238) mean a substance is LESS DANGEROUS, means it emits less radiation per unit of time. what you need to worry about are fission products with types of radiation that impact human tissues. Like Cesium 137 or certain isotopes of Iodine.

P.S: if you live in the south, make sure not to move to denver. the radiation levels are 5 to 7 times higher. P.S.S: the cancer rates are lower in Colorado.

if low level radiation is a killer, no one can demonstrate this because the signal cannot rise above the noise. Really avoid moving to Ramsar Iran, where Mrems register at 20,000/yr in places, with no increase in cancer incidence.

The left cannot even think anymore. they engage in silly anti scientific guilt by association.

btw, my kid is native american.

greg meyerson says:

On the Forgotten Peoples:

the mine needs to be cleaned up! the real danger in the mines is Radon gas. if you burn the uranium for energy, it won’t decay to radon.

uranium itself is an alpha emitter. it cannot penetrate the skin. unless aerosolized.

Peter says:

Is it dangerous to visit Cameron, AZ, Kayenta, and the Monument Valley? Any precautions we need to take?


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