Nuclear Materials 'Poison' Navajo Land

Native Americans say U.S. government exposed nation to deadly uranium.

ByABC News
February 18, 2009, 6:12 PM

Oct. 23, 2007— -- When Ray Manygoats describes his childhood -- playing with marbles, messing around with his brother, visiting his father at work and grilling his family's livestock -- one might mistake his stories for fond memories of growing up in the Navajo Nation.

But today, these memories are nothing more than evidence of the damage done to him and his family by uranium mining on Navajo lands during the Cold War, all part of an effort to provide the federal government with the uranium yellowcake it needed for nuclear weapons.

"We cooked on grills my father brought back from the mill. These grills had been used to sift the yellowcake uranium," Manygoats told Congress at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Tuesday.

"My brother Tommy and I would often bring lunch to my father at the mill. Yellow stuff was always everywhere. We would play in the yellowcake sand at the mill, jumping and rolling around in it. We also found small metal balls at the mill. The balls were used to crush and process the uranium. We played marbles with them and had contests to see how far we could throw them."

It wasn't until years later that the damage done became horrifyingly clear.

In his testimony to the committee, Manygoats blames the illnesses on uranium.

"Our land today is poisoned. Today I am a man who has lost his health, his family and his ancestral way of life because of uranium," he told the committee.

Manygoats described the devastating details of living on poisoned land.

"My father began to have trouble breathing," he recounted. "His breathing troubles never went away, even after the mill was closed. I have always had problems with my ears and eyes. I have had surgery three times to remove growths from my eyes and often have sores on my ears."

Although no comprehensive study has ever been done on the health problems resulting from uranium mining in the Navajo nation, researchers believe that exposure to mining almost certainly triggered a dramatic rise in cancer among the Navajo.

Manygoats blamed the widespread illnesses among his family and his community on the uranium.

"Our land today is poisoned," he told Congress. "Today I am a man who has lost his health, his family, and his ancestral way of life because of uranium."

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 1944 and 1986 nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore were mined from the Navajo Nation, an area larger than the state of West Virginia, which occupies parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

These mines have since been shut down.

At present, the EPA says there are 520 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation, while the Southwest Research and Information Center estimates there may actually be as many as 1,200 abandoned mines and related sites on Navajo land.

Although the mines are no longer operational, Manygoats and other Navajos are upset that the surface and groundwater contamination from the mines continues to plague the Navajo population.

"My family's land is poisoned," says Manygoats. "But no one helps us to remove the poison. I am here on behalf of my community to ask for your help."

George Arthur represented the Navajo Nation government at the hearing.

"Uranium mining and milling on and near the reservation has been a disaster for the Navajo people," Arthur said.

"We are still undergoing what appears to be a never-ending federal experiment to see how much devastation can be endured by a people and a society from exposure to radiation in the air, in the water, in the mines, and on the surface of the land. We are unwilling to be the subjects of that ongoing experiment any longer."

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were outraged. Committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called the government's behavior "absolutely unacceptable" and a "modern American tragedy".