INSIDE JOB: EPA MAY HAVE INTENTIONALLY POLLUTED ANIMAS RIVER
EPA spill benefits Obama’s war against American energy
by KIT DANIELS | INFOWARS.COM | AUGUST 12, 2015
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to stop handing out forms to Navajo citizens impacted by the Animas River spill that would effectively waive an individual’s rights to sue the agency for any future damages caused by contaminated water released from an abandoned mine upstream in Colorado last week.
“The people that live up and down the river, the Navajo people, many do not speak English, and those that do may not comprehend legal language,” Begaye said.
Around 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater spilled into the Animas River from an abandoned gold mine in southern Colorado last week after an accident caused by the EPA. The agency says the water contains lead, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals, but has still not disclosed what impact the spill will have on river users downstream, like those in the Navajo Nation. However, Begaye says officials are already trying to preempt future lawsuits by taking advantage of Navajo citizens.
“My interpretation as president of the Navajo Nation is the EPA is trying to minimize the amount of compensation that the people deserve,” said Begaye. “They want to close these cases and they don’t want more compensation to come later.”
The EPA did not return requests for comment.
Claims for damage, death or injury caused by a federal employee’s negligence are covered under Standard Form 95, but the form also states that any payments made are final.
“They’re saying if we pay you $500 for buying hay for your cattle, and you sign your name here, that’s all you’re going to get,” said Begaye. “Next week if you find something else that comes up because of the contamination and maybe your livestock may be injured, then we can’t pay you because you waived your right.”
The Navajo Nation has declared a state of emergency and is planning lawsuits against the owner of the Gold King Mine, where the sludge originated, and the EPA for causing the spill. Navajo Nation officials are working around the clock on contingency plans, including drastic measures to protect farm and ranch livelihoods.
“We could ask all the owners if they could get their animals and bring them to the rodeo grounds and we could put them in pens,” said Alvis Kee, manager of the Upper Fruitland Chapter House. “We could get stock tanks with water, we could get the hay or whatever feed they need and to bring that over and provide it so they can insure that their livestock do not go to the river.”
Other communities along the Animas are making their own plans. In Aztec, City Manager Josh Rays says authorities are primarily concerned with getting drinking water to residents who use wells instead of the municipal system.
“We have roughly 73 million gallons of untreated water in reserve,” Rays said. “We have another three or four million gallons in treated water in reserve, so we have sufficient water supply for 30 to 45 days without having to access new water sources.”
For the moment, Aztec is preparing for up to six months without access to the Animas. After that, Rays says that water will have to be trucked in.
“We just don’t know how long this is going to last,” Kee said. “We’re hoping for the best, but we’re starting to plan for the worst, and that’s all we can do at this stage.”
Summer 2012 Tufts Magazine: LETTERS URANIUM AND THE NAVAJOSLeslie Macmillan’s article “Tainted Desert” (Winter 2012), about Professor Doug Brugge’s work on uranium contamination, is most accurate and informative. It is important to realize that uranium mining in Arizona continues. Indeed, there is a movement to expand into the greater area of the Grand Canyon. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has come under intense pressure to allow new mining there. Apparently we have learned nothing regarding the unintended costs of uranium mining.
Earle B. Hoyt Jr., G66
Professor of Chemistry Emeritus, Northern Arizona University
I read “Tainted Desert” with great interest, since I, too, have spent time on the Navajo reservation. Back in the late sixties, I helped document the environmental issues associated with uranium near Tuba City and Mexican Hat. Interestingly, similar work conducted on the Colorado plateau led to the discovery of the “indoor radon” problem.
Bob Snelling, E62
Holderness, New Hampshire
“Tainted Desert” reminded me of a similar situation on the St. Regis Mohawk Akwesasne Reservation in northern New York State. But in this instance, fortunately, strong local protests led to a solution.
Two corporations, Alcoa and GM, had dumped PCBs, mercury, dioxins, and other pollutants into the nearby St. Lawrence River for many years, causing serious health issues for a tribe already burdened with tuberculosis, diabetes, and poverty. After many fighting years and a major lawsuit, a federal Superfund was created, and now a billion dollars worth of cleanup, education, and monitoring has been done.
Laura Chodos, J49
Saratoga Springs, New York
Looks to me like Doug Brugge should amble down to Anderson Hall and convince someone to develop a cheap solar water distiller for the Navajos whose water supplies have been contaminated with uranium.
Art Merrow, E67
TURNPIKE WOES “The Toll” (Winter 2012), by Vestal McIntyre, A94, resonates with me, as the Maine Turnpike Authority has been turning up in the local news often these days. The deteriorating southern toll station has been a major issue, as has the behavior of the previous turnpike administrator, Paul Violette, who has pled guilty to charges of theft and is now headed for the lockup.
David Lincoln, A52
PRIDE OF DONORSHIP The message of Seth Godin, E82, in “Pick Yourself” (Winter 2012) is right on. I’ve been in the National Bone Marrow Donor Program’s registry since 1994, and every time they get in touch with me to verify or update my contact information, I think, “Boy, I really hope I’m a match for someone someday.” I can’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like to get that phone call.
Jeanne D. Breen, MD, J83
Old Saybrook, Connecticut
KIND WORDS As a magazine editorial board member (Foreign Service Journal for the past nine years), I want to commend you on the latest issue of Tufts Magazine. I really like the layout, articles, photos, and overall content. The articles are short enough so that you can easily go from one to another, and the layout helps carry you through the magazine. A class act. Keep up the good work.
Stephen W. Buck, F63, F76
I just wanted to tell you what a great magazine you put out. The articles are usually interesting and well written. It is not just a vehicle for class notes and fundraising like so many other alumni magazines that we just throw out.
Keith Taylor, A64
Just a quick note to say how much I enjoy Tufts Magazine. It is a beautifully designed publication that is always entertaining, educational, varied in subject matter, and extremely interesting.
Kehheth J. Billings, M65
MOYNIHAN’S MONIKER In the Fall 2011 issue of Tufts Magazine, I came upon the quote from former New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, A48, F49, F61, H68, under the heading “Dan Pat.” I am afraid you got the name wrong. I was Senator Moynihan’s state director, and never once did I hear anybody call him Dan Pat. He was either Senator Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, or just Pat to his friends and family.
Ross A. Frommer, A85
Bronx, New York
Point taken. The recurring item formerly known as “Dan Pat” is now “D.P.M.” —Editor
CORRECTIONS In the Fall 2011 issue (page 71), we blew a rare opportunity to correctly spell the name of the West African country Burkina Faso. In the Winter 2012 issue (page 46), we misspelled the name of the late film director Gary Winick, A84, and swapped the credits of Jeff Strauss (Dream On, Friends, and Titus & Reba) and Jeff Greenstein (Friends, Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, and Parenthood), both A84. We regret the errors.
Winter 2012 Tainted Desert Struggling to reclaim their health and land after decades of uranium mining, the Navajos find a strong advocate at TuftsTainted Desert: Struggling to reclaim their health and land after decades of uranium mining, the Navajos find a strong advocate at Tufts BY LESLIE MACMILLAN
Photo by Leslie Macmillan: As a boy, Doug Brugge lived in a double-wide trailer on the Navajo reservation, near an old Indian trading post. It was a modest dwelling, but the towering mesas and red valleys of the West were his backyard. “You could just run out the back door and play,” says Brugge, whose father worked as an anthropologist for the Navaho Nation and the National Park Service. But there were dangers, too. Flash floods would fill the arroyos, and children could fall in and drown. And one time his sister brought home a new pet in a Dixie cup—a scorpion—that made their mother scream.
It wasn’t until he traveled back to the reservation at the age of thirty-two that Brugge realized a far greater danger had lurked all around him: the sacred land of the Navajos—which had once supplied America’s nuclear weapons program—silently throbs with radiation.
From 1944 to 1986, nearly four million tons of uranium ore was extracted from the reservation, an area the size of West Virginia that spans northeastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah. When demand for uranium dried up at the end of the Cold War, the mining companies simply abandoned the roughly thirteen hundred mines, leaving behind radioactive waste piles known as uranium tailings. Navajos inhaled radioactive dust and drank water contaminated with uranium, arsenic, and other heavy metals, and the cancer death rate there doubled, according to Indian Health Service data.
Brugge, who had gone east to earn a Ph.D. in cellular and developmental biology and an M.S. in industrial hygiene from Harvard and had become a professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine, wanted to understand what had happened to the land and the people he had known as a child. He also wanted to practice science without being “stuck in a lab,” and he reasoned that investigating radiation on the reservation would give him a way to stay in the field. “I wrote my first grant and it got funded. That was a revelation,” says Brugge (pronounced “briggy”). “I figured, if I can keep writing grants, I can make this work for me.”
Grants subsidized Brugge’s first book, Memories Come to Us in the Rain and the Wind, published in 1997, a series of interviews he and two partners conducted with Navajos affected by uranium mining. Next he wrote papers on uranium for peer-reviewed journals. He testified before Congress for the Navajo government. He became a conservationist and an ardent student of uranium.
“Uranium ore has all these things in it—radium, thorium, uranium,” Brugge says. He explains that the ore’s deadly properties are released only when it is dug up. “Radium decays into radon, and radon decays into a whole series of radioactive isotopes very quickly that are giving off all these alpha particles. When these particles lodge in your lung, that is a disaster for your health. They cause lung cancer.”
Today, Brugge is a leading expert on uranium, and consults on nuclear policy issues worldwide. But he also devotes much of his time to the ravaged homeland of the Navajo people, intent on bringing about some measure of what he calls environmental justice. He presses for health studies and works with federal and tribal organizations on legislation to clean up mine waste and compensate miners who get sick from uranium. He shares both his scientific expertise and his knowledge of the place where he grew up, a place where people can be mistrustful of outsiders and skeptical of government interference.
The view from the top of the Skyline Mine in Monument Valley, Utah, is straight out of an old John Ford Western—a sweeping panorama of a valley edged by cliffs and twisted fingers of rock. Eight hundred feet below the former uranium mine, at the bottom of the valley, sits the tiny hogan of a Navajo grandmother named Elsie Begay.
Thirty years ago, Begay had the concrete floor of her traditional Navajo home built out of material that was free and readily available and, unbeknownst to her, radioactive: loose rock that had washed down the mesa where the Skyline mine had once operated. After losing two sons—one to a brain tumor, the other to lung cancer—Begay asked for help, and Doug Brugge was among those who responded.
Brugge learned that Begay’s children had played on the floor and that family members had slept either on mattresses directly on the floor or on carpets. “All these scenarios mean that heads, bodies, and reproductive organs rested for lengthy periods directly on the source of radiation,” he says.
The Environmental Protection Agency tested the house. Sure enough, the agency found that the level of radiation “would result in an exposure that is about forty-four times larger than is considered acceptable” by both its own standards and those of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says Brugge. A documentary, The Return of Navajo Boy, for which Brugge served as scientific consultant, aired on PBS in 2000 and touched off a flood of publicity. A 2005 series in the Los Angeles Times that also told Elsie Begay’s story helped bring attention to the Navajos’ predicament.
In 2007, after decades of government indifference, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), then chair of the House Oversight Committee, pressed for immediate action. He held a congressional hearing at which Brugge testified as a scientific witness for the Navajo Nation, describing how waste from uranium mining can cause cancer and urging more research. “If we are to understand the full extent of this injustice, we will need additional health studies,” Brugge said. Following the hearing, the government enacted a five-year, multi-agency initiative to remediate the worst of the contaminated structures on the reservation, and Skyline was the first site slated for cleanup.
The problems were far from over, however. The initial plan for Skyline was to remove two piles of contaminated soil from the bottom of the mesa. But Jason Musante, who oversaw the $7.5 million Skyline cleanup for the EPA, soon learned that the job was bigger. “As I was looking up, there was visible mine waste—this grayish material,” he says. “I realized—that stuff is going to keep coming down. We’ve got to get that, too.” Crews ended up using an excavator to scoop some twenty thousand cubic yards of waste from the valley floor and haul it with a motorized pulley to the mesa top. They also had to improve the existing dirt roads, which were no wider than mule paths, for use by heavy trucks.
At the same time, Musante was grappling with deep-rooted mistrust on the Navajo reservation. “It takes a little while for people to open up out here,” he says. “Typically, Navajos don’t do big displays of emotion. They can be angry or happy and you’ll never know. That’s just cultural, it’s not anything personal.” The cultural barrier was not the only issue, though.
The truth is that the Navajos had every reason to be wary, according to Brugge. “By the start of uranium mining in the U.S. in the late forties,” he says, “government scientists understood that radon causes lung cancer. That’s the basis for saying this was a serious ethical failure on the part of the federal government. They should have regulated it, they should have protected people, but instead they studied them for another fifteen years and watched it happen.”
Countering this rocky history called for diplomacy. For two years before the actual cleanup, Musante was flying out to the reservation to meet with Navajo leaders and begin addressing their concerns. He says he “bent over backwards” to find solutions agreeable to the community. Still, there was one wish he was not able to accommodate: to move all the contaminated waste someplace else. His solution was to bury the waste in a giant plastic-lined repository on top of the mesa. “This material is not screaming hot, and there’s literally not enough money to drive all of it off Navajo lands,” he says. “That’s a political issue, because the Navajos say ’We want this stuff off our land.’ But it’s their land. This is their stuff.”
The cleanup of Skyline was completed in October 2011 and hailed as a milestone by the EPA. But many Navajos are still skeptical. “That’s what they want you to see—something that’s all nice and cleaned up,” says the Navajo manager of a hotel near Skyline, who asked not to be identified. He says he and “a buddy” were taking water samples from the San Juan River in back of his hotel and sending them to a private lab in Phoenix for testing. The operation, he says, “was shut down by the Feds. The government doesn’t want people to know that Navajos are living in a hot area.”
In the dust-choked towns and ramshackle outcroppings of trailers and cinderblock dwellings on the reservation, water is an all-consuming issue. Homes frequently lack running water and indoor plumbing. Worse, one out of three Navajos has no access to clean drinking water. Many wells and springs are still contaminated with uranium, in addition to arsenic and other heavy metals left over from mining. “This is not Haiti; it’s here in the United States—people without potable drinking water,” Brugge observes.
Some Navajos, like Wilbur Huskin, who is fifty-five, today rue a lifetime’s exposure to contaminated water. “The government didn’t tell us the water was no good,” he says, remembering that it always had a strange consistency. “It was thick,” he says. “Like syrup.”
Huskin’s family suffers from a variety of ills, some of which may be attributable to drinking tainted water, others of which could stem from working in the mines. His brother Jerry Huskon—the surname is spelled differently because they attended different schools—is a former miner who has lung cancer. Jerry’s wife, Florabell, has a long list of health issues, including asthma, bronchitis, anemia, and liver problems. Ten years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer of the gall bladder. The three live together in a hogan surrounded by red cliffs and mesas and buttressed by American flags they have posted around the property.
When asked if he thinks the government knew the water was contaminated, Wilbur Huskin responds, “I know they knew. They had engineers come through doing surveys and they were wearing masks.”
For many, the only way to get clean water is to haul it from remote locations, a weekly chore that takes hours and requires lifting heavy barrels. The water must then be siphoned into smaller buckets for daily use.
Ronald Tohannie, a sturdy fifty-four-year-old Navajo with black-framed glasses and worker’s hands, is accustomed to the job. On a hot day in August, he loads his pickup truck with two blue plastic fifty-five-gallon drums and drives for an hour to a community well. Using a government-issued “water card” he unlocks a spigot. The brownish water reeks of sulfur, but it is regularly tested for contamination and has been deemed safe to drink by the U.S. government.
Tohannie just wishes he could bring home more of it. “You get kind of stingy with the water,” he says with a chuckle, pointing out that the 110 gallons he hauls must last his family of six one week. It is used for drinking, livestock, cooking, laundry, and bathing—in that order. “Usually we don’t have enough at the end of the week,” he says. “So we bathe in the river.” Tohannie has taken on the role of project manager for water with a grassroots organization called Forgotten People, whose projects range from lobbying for legislation against new mining activities to trucking clean water onto the reservation.
In January 2011, Forgotten People asked Brugge’s help in assessing an EPA report performed on a newly discovered uranium mine, Site 457. A cattle rancher had stumbled upon its crumbling concrete structure in the middle of the desert. Back in Boston, Brugge glances at the report, which is sitting on his desk. He shakes his head. “Why are people on the ground out there identifying sites that aren’t on any lists—after all this time? It’s a vast area, that’s some of it,” he says, his voice trailing. “But it’s still hard to understand. It makes you wonder how much more that we don’t know about is still out there.”
Brugge finds this site particularly worrisome, as it lies close to the Little Colorado River Basin. “The contamination could be moving from the site into the Colorado River,” he says. “Contamination can leach slowly for decades, depending on the movement of water. I’m not a hydrologist, but it seems likely that groundwater would flow toward the river, since that is almost always the case when a site is in the immediate vicinity of a river.” The Colorado supplies drinking water to millions of people, from Arizona to California.
On the other side of the reservation, Alice Tso, age eighty, sits on a makeshift patio that offers some shade from the searing desert sun. She is flanked by the trappings typical of dwellings in the poorest part of the Navajo reservation—a rickety wooden outhouse, spent propane canisters used for cooking, and a pair of blue fifty-five-gallon drums. Plastic chairs are set out for visitors, who are offered coffee and Twinkies.
Tso was operated on for kidney cancer in her forties and has been living with one kidney ever since. Her forty-five-year-old daughter Linda Tso Begay (no relation to Elsie Begay) has a urinary tract infection that dates from childhood. Normally, such infections clear up in a matter of days with antibiotics, but Begay’s Indian Health Service doctors in Tuba City have not been able to cure her. Now they’re worried that it is a precursor to kidney cancer—the same disease her mother has. “With my condition, I’m not ashamed to say I have to pee all the time,” she says. “Sometimes I soak a pad with hot water and put it between my legs, and that’s the only thing that helps.”
The local well water is known to be contaminated. “My dad has been bringing that water since we were little,” she says. Asked if she still drinks the same well water, she responds, “Sometimes.” Asked if she is afraid, knowing the danger, she shrugs. “If it was blue or red maybe. But it’s clear and cold and it still tastes good to us. And at times,” she confesses, “there is no choice.”
Tso and her daughter have never received any compensation for their illnesses because they have not been able to prove a link to uranium. Brugge says this is typical, and it’s the reason health studies are so important. “The vast majority of research has been on miners, and the research base on the community is very shallow,” he notes. “That is not just a political problem, it’s also a scientific problem.” Yet while he acknowledges that “there’s a lot we don’t know,” he takes pains to remind people of what we do know. An article he coauthored, recently published in the scientific journal Reviews on Environmental Health, reports that new studies suggest uranium harms the brain and reproductive system. It also points out that longstanding evidence indicates uranium is a kidney toxin as well as a cause of genetic damage and birth defects.
Linda Begay, for her part, seems resigned to her lot and mostly looks toward the future. She has three children, in their late teens and early twenties. Hers is one of the families that could benefit from Forgotten People’s recent EPA-funded pilot project to truck clean water to the reservation from outside. A 500-gallon drum, almost ten times the size of the barrels the family currently uses, sits in the shed still in its plastic wrap.
“I wish they would have discovered this a long time ago,” she says of the contamination on Navajo lands. “Maybe I would have had a better life. I would have stayed in school and maybe moved to another place, off the reservation. That’s why I push my kids to do more. Even if I have a health problem, they’ll never look back and worry about me. I don’t want that. I want them to move on.”
Brugge, too, has his eyes on the next generation of Navajos. Last November he traveled to the Red Valley/Cove High School in Red Valley, Arizona, to give a talk and help develop a curriculum about the effects of uranium. “It’s a particular strength of the Navajos,” he says, “that these young people are so respectful of their elders and concerned about them and about learning from their experience. I see hope in the young Navajos.”
Even the knowledge that the five-year government cleanup plan is set to end in 2012 doesn’t discourage him. “There is a long way to go, but they are making a start. Thoroughly remediating some of the worst mines, laying pipe to bring clean water to hundreds of homes previously without. Trucking water to other homes. The important thing is that they keep on this path and not give up.”
LESLIE MACMILLAN, a Boston-area freelance writer, has written for the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald, and her short fiction and book reviews have been published in the Gettysburg Review, the Charles River Review, and the Harvard Review.
5/4/2012 Statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, upon conclusion of his visit to the United States: Statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya,
upon conclusion of his visit to the United States 4 May 2012: Washington, D.C.– “In my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, I am concluding my official visit to the United States of America, which I have been carrying out over the past twelve days. During my mission, I have held consultations with indigenous peoples, tribes, and nations in Washington, D.C.; Arizona; Alaska; Oregon; Washington State; South Dakota; and Oklahoma, both in Indian Country and in urban areas. I also had a series of meetings with representatives of the executive branch of the federal government and with state government officials. I regret that my efforts to meet with members of the U.S. Congress were unsuccessful, especially given the prominent role of Congress in defining the status and rights of indigenous peoples within the United States.
I would like to thank the U.S. Department of State and other parts of the government administration for the cooperation they have provided for the mission. I would also like to express my deep gratitude to representatives of indigenous nations and peoples whose assistance in planning and carrying out of this visit has been indispensible. I am honored to have been welcomed into their communities and am humbled by the hospitality I received. I am grateful that they shared their still vibrant cultures and stories, and also their concerns with me.
My mission has been carried out against the backdrop of the United States’ endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in December 2010. Over the past twelve days, I have collected a significant amount of information from indigenous peoples and Government representatives across the country, with a view to assessing how the standards of the Declaration are reflected in United States law, policy and programs at both the state and federal levels, and to identify needed reforms as well as good practices.
In the following weeks, I will be reviewing the extensive information I have received during the visit in order to develop a report to evaluate the situation of indigenous peoples in the United States and to make a series of recommendations. This report will be made public, and will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council, most likely at its plenary session in September. I hope that that this report will be of use to Native American, Alaska Native and Hawaiian peoples, as well as to the Government of the United States, to help find solutions to ongoing challenges that indigenous peoples in the country face, and to advance their rights in accordance with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Over the past twelve days, I have heard stories that make evident the profound hurt that indigenous peoples continue to feel because of the history of oppression they have faced. This history—as is widely known but often forgotten—includes the dispossession of the vast majority of their lands and resources, the removal of children from their families and communities, the breakdown of their traditional structures, the loss of their languages, the breaking of treaties, and numerous instances of outrights brutality, all grounded on racial discrimination.
It is clear that this history does not just blemish the past, but translates into present day disadvantage for indigenous peoples in the country. The intergenerational trauma suffered by indigenous societies is deeply felt and manifested in deep social ills that afflict indigenous Americans in ways not experienced by others.
I have heard countless accounts of the ongoing problems that indigenous peoples face as a result of historical injustices, problems of deeply troubling economic, health, education, and development disparities. In all my consultations with indigenous peoples in the places I visited it was impressed upon me that the sense of loss, alienation and indignity is pervasive throughout Indian country. It is evident that there have still not been adequate measures of reconciliation to overcome the persistent legacies of the history of oppression, and that there is still much healing that needs to be done.
I believe that an important step in the still needed process of reconciliation is the statement of support of the Government of the United States for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the United States should be commended for joining the rest of the countries of the world in its support for this instrument. The Declaration affirms fundamental human rights in relation to the particular historical and contemporary circumstances of indigenous peoples. It echoes fundamental values, embraced by the American constitutional tradition, of self-determination, equality, local decision-making and secure property, and respect for cultural identity. The United States must also ensure that international relations and laws governing corporate activities affecting indigenous peoples in other countries are consistent with, and promote, the application of the Declaration.
I have also heard about initiatives the Federal Government has taken in recent years to improve the conditions of indigenous peoples, which can be seen as advances towards the implementation of some provisions of the Declaration. These include initiatives to develop consultation policies and open spaces of dialogue with tribes; to settle outstanding claims; to increase funding for federal programs; and to improve education, economic development, and law and order in Indian Country. These initiatives build on some already important recognition of, and in some cases exemplary laws, policies, and programs that promote the rights of indigenous peoples in the country. I will continue to study these and other initiatives and will be reflecting positive developments in further detail in my report.
However, from the information that I have gathered, it is evident that more robust measures are needed to address the serious issues affecting Native American, Alaska Native and Hawaiian peoples in the United States, issues that are rooted in a dark and complex history whose legacies are not easy to overcome. Continued and concerted measures are needed to develop new initiatives and reform existing ones, in consultation and in real partnership with indigenous peoples, to conform to the Declaration, with a goal towards strengthening indigenous peoples’ own self-determination and decision-making over their affairs at all levels. The Declaration provides a new grounding for understanding the status and rights of indigenous peoples, upon which the legal doctrines of conquest and discovery must be discarded as a basis for decision-making by judicial and other authorities.
I have seen that many tribes across the country have capable institutions of self-governance and tribal courts, self-administered social and economic development programs, which have demonstrated significant successes and, with an understanding and knowledge of tribal realities, function at the same time to promote and consolidate indigenous cultures and values. During my visit, I heard almost universal calls from indigenous nations and tribes across the country that the Government respect tribal sovereignty, that indigenous peoples’ ability to control their own affairs be strengthened, and that the many existing barriers to the effective exercise of self-determination be removed. It should be noted that the Violence Against Women Act, which is currently pending reauthorization before Congress, contains important provisions recognizing the jurisdiction of tribes to prosecute perpetrators of violence against Indian women and to hold them accountable for their crimes, which is a good step towards addressing this distressing problem. Also, adequate funding should be provided to ensure the welfare of indigenous Americans in accordance with historical obligations, especially in areas of health, housing, and education.
I cannot conclude without providing some brief comments on issues I have heard related to the lands and resources of indigenous peoples across America. The widespread loss of indigenous peoples’ lands and resources is well-documented. The negative effects of this loss are compounded by past and ongoing activities that diminish or threaten the remaining lands and resources upon which indigenous peoples depend. Across America, past uncontrolled and irresponsible extractive activities, including uranium mining in the Southwest, have resulted in the contamination of indigenous peoples’ water sources and other resources, and in numerous documented negative health effects among Native Americans.
In Alaska and the Pacific Northwest especially, I heard about how Native peoples continue to depend upon hunting and gathering wildlife, and fishing marine resources, and how the maintenance of these subsistence activities is essential for both their physical and their cultural survival, especially in isolated areas. However, indigenous peoples informed me that they face ever-greater threats to their subsistence activities due to a growing surge of competing interests, and in some cases incompatible extractive activities, over these lands and resources. In Alaska, indigenous peoples complain about a complex and overly restrictive state regulatory apparatus that impedes their access to subsistence resources.
I also heard many stories about the significance of places that are sacred to indigenous peoples, places like the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona and the Black Hills in South Dakota, which hold profound religious and cultural significance to tribes. During my visit, indigenous peoples reported to me that they have too little control over what happens in these places, and that activities carried out around them at times affront their values and beliefs.
It is important to note, in this regard, that securing the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands is of central importance to indigenous peoples’ socio-economic development, self-determination, and cultural integrity. Continued efforts to resolve, clarify, and strengthen the protection of indigenous lands, resources, and sacred sites should be made.
I look forward to developing more detailed observations and recommendations beyond these initial comments in my report to the Human Rights Council. As I noted, my observations and recommendations will be aimed at identifying good practices and needed reforms in line with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I hope that this process will contribute to ensuring that the first Americans can continue to thrive and maintain their distinct ways of life as they have done for generations despite significant challenges, preserving this fundamental part of American history and enriching American society for the benefit of all.”
3/31/2012 New York Times article: Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous
“If this level of radioactivity were found in a middle-class suburb, the response would be immediate and aggressive,” said Doug Brugge, a public health professor at Tufts University medical school and an expert on uranium. “The site is remote, but there are obviously people spending time on it. Don’t they deserve some concern?”
Navajo advocates, scientists and politicians are asking the same question.
The discovery came in the midst of the largest federal effort to date to clean up uranium mines on the vast Indian reservation. A hearing in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led to a multiagency effort to assess and clean up hundreds of structures on the reservation through a five-year plan that ends this year.
Yet while some mines have been “surgically scraped” of contamination and are impressive showpieces for the E.P.A., others, like the Cameron site, are still contaminated. Officials at the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy attribute the delay to the complexity of prioritizing mine sites. Some say it is also about politics and money.
“The government can’t afford it; that’s a big reason why it hasn’t stepped in and done more,” said Bob Darr, a public relations specialist for the environmental consulting firm S.M. Stoller, which does contracting work for the Department of Energy. “The contamination problem is vast.”
If the government can track down a responsible party, he said, it could require it to pay for remediation. But most of the mining companies that operated on the reservation have long since gone out of business, Mr. Darr said.
To date, the E.P.A., the Department of Energy and other agencies have evaluated 683 mine sites on the land and have selected 34 structures and 12 residential yards for remediation. The E.P.A. alone has spent $60 million on assessment and cleanup.
Cleaning up all the mines would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Clancy Tenley, a senior E.P.A. official who oversees the uranium legacy program for the agency in the Southwest.
Some say the effort has been marred by bureaucratic squabbles and a tendency to duck responsibility. “I’ll be the first to admit that the D.O.E. could work better with the E.P.A.,” said David Shafer, an environmental manager at the energy agency.
Determining whether uranium is a result of past mining or is naturally occurring is “a real debate” and can delay addressing the problem, Mr. Shafer said. He cited seepage of uranium contaminants into the San Juan River, which runs along the boundary of the reservation, as an example. “We need to look at things like this collectively and not just say it’s E.P.A.’s problem or D.O.E.’s problem,” he said.
E.P.A. officials said their first priority was to address sites near people’s homes. “In places where we see people living in close proximity to a mine and there are elevated readings, those are rising to the top of the list for urgent action,” Mr. Tenley said.
Agency officials said they planned a more thorough review of the Cameron site — which still has no warning signs posted — within the next six months.
Meanwhile, Navajos continue to be exposed to high levels of radioactivity in the form of uranium and its decay products, like radon and radium. Those materials are known to cause health problems, including bone, liver, breast and lung cancer.
Lucy Knorr, 68, of Tuba City, Ariz., grew up near the VCA No. 2 mine operated by the Kerr-McGee Corporation, now defunct. Her father, a former miner, died of lung cancer at age 55 in 1980, and her family received a payout of $100,000 under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a law that was enacted after her mother hired a lawyer and testified before Congress.
The program has awarded $1.5 billion for 23,408 approved claims since it was enacted in 1990.
Ms. Knorr’s father was one of hundreds of Navajos who did not wear protective gear while working in the mine. “He’d wash at a basin outside” after leaving the mine, she said, “and the water would just turn yellow.”
The government has been successful in tracking down and holding some former mining companies accountable. The E.P.A. is requiring that General Electric spend $44 million to clean up its Northeast Church Rock Mine, near Gallup, N. M. Chevron is paying to clean up the Mariano Lake Mine, also in New Mexico.
When the government cannot locate a responsible party, which is most often the case, the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy work with the tribal authorities to reach cleanup decisions. In general, the E.P.A. handles mines, while the Energy Department is responsible for the mills where the ore was processed and enriched.
One of the Department of Energy’s biggest priorities is a billion-dollar uranium mine cleanup that is under way in Moab, Utah, and that received $108 million in federal stimulus money and the backing of nine congressmen.
Some Navajo officials point out that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a 20-year moratorium on new uranium and other hard-rock mining claims on one million acres of federal land around the Grand Canyon in January, saying it was needed to preserve the mile-deep canyon and the river that runs through it. The mining industry is challenging that decision in court.
But the Navajo Nation, considered a sovereign government entity, has not gotten similar treatment from the federal government for its land, some of its officials say. The nation has asked for $500 million for mine cleanup, but the money has not materialized, said Eugene Esplain, one of two officials with the Navajo E.P.A. responsible for patrolling an area the size of West Virginia.
Taylor McKinnon, a director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that worked to halt new mining claims near the Grand Canyon, said the Cameron site was the worst he had seen in the Southwest. He has even seen cow droppings near the mine, he said, an indication that cattle are grazing there. And “people are eating those livestock,” he said.
Ronald Tohannie, a project manager with the Navajo advocacy group Forgotten People, said the locally grown beef was tested at the slaughterhouse, but not for the presence of radioactive substances like uranium.
When E.P.A. officials in the California office overseeing the region were asked to accompany a reporter to the Cameron mine site, they countered with an offer to visit the Skyline Mine in Utah, on the northern boundary of the reservation in Monument Valley, where a big federal cleanup was completed last October.
The onetime mine, atop a 1,000-foot mesa, provides a sweeping panorama of the red valley below. Just one tiny dwelling is visible, the packed-earth hogan of Elsie Begay, a 71-year-old Navajo woman. Ms. Begay was featured in a series of articles in The Los Angeles Times in 2006 about serious illnesses that several of her family members developed after living in the area for many years.
The publicity “might have bumped the site up the priority list,” said Jason Musante, who oversaw the $7.5 million cleanup of the mine for the E.P.A.
In trailers and cinder-block dwellings on the Navajo reservation, there is deep cynicism and apprehension about the federal effort. “That’s what they want you to see: something that’s all nice and cleaned up,” said the Navajo manager of a hotel near the Skyline mine. He asked not to be identified, saying that he had already come under government scrutiny for collecting water samples from the San Juan River for uranium testing at a private lab.
For some Navajos, the uranium contamination is all of a piece with their fraught relationship with the federal government.
“They’re making excuses, and they’ve always made excuses,” Ms. Knorr said. “The government should have had a law in place that told these mining companies: you clean up your mess when you leave.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 27, 2012
An article on April 1 about concerns over radioactivity levels around former uranium mines on Navajo territory in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico referred imprecisely to Bob Darr, a public relations specialist who said that the federal government cannot afford to clean up all the mines. While he works for S.M. Stoller, a consulting firm that provides public affairs support to the Department of Energy under contract, he is not a spokesman for the department.
For years, unsuspecting Navajos inhaled radioactive dust and drank contaminated well water. Many of them became sick with cancer and other diseases.
The radioactivity at the former mine is said to measure one million counts per minute, translating to a human dose that scientists say can lead directly to malignant tumors and other serious health damage, according to Lee Greer, a biologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. Two days of exposure at the Cameron site would expose a person to more external radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers safe for an entire year.
The E.P.A. filed a report on the rancher’s find early last year and pledged to continue its environmental review. But there are still no warning signs or fencing around the secluded and decaying site. Crushed beer cans and spent shell casings dot the ground, revealing that the old mine has become a sort of toxic playground.
CAMERON, Ariz. — In the summer of 2010, a Navajo cattle rancher named Larry Gordy stumbled upon an abandoned uranium mine in the middle of his grazing land and figured he had better call in the feds. Engineers from the Environmental Protection Agency arrived a few months later, Geiger counters in hand, and found radioactivity levels that buried the needles on their equipment. The abandoned mine here, about 60 miles east of the Grand Canyon, joins the list of hundreds of such sites identified across the 27,000 square miles of Navajo territory in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico that are the legacy of shoddy mining practices and federal neglect. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the mines supplied critical materials to the nation’s nuclear weapons program.