On Poisoned Ground

Elsie Mae Begay sifts sand near her home in Monument Valley on August 24, 2011. As youngsters, Begay’s children played in piles of uranium tailings. (Associated Press)

Elsie Mae Begay sifts sand near her home in Monument Valley on August 24, 2011. As youngsters, Begay’s children played in piles of uranium tailings. (Associated Press)

For the Navajo the resulting ecological problems have become more complex as the radioactive and toxic mining and milling debris integrate into the biota. Water from wells and plants used in ceremonies and sweat lodges give additional exposure. Charley says that on the Navajo Nation the Diné believe they are protected within the boundaries of four sacred mountains that mark the edges of their traditional lands: “We coexist with nature out there. It is our Mother, and Sky is our Father, and we coexist. Everything has a place, a purpose, our brothers and sisters that are four legged, it is all in a world that is alive and thriving. So we had no concept that something that we coexisted with . . . would be so damaging to our entire society.” There are no Diné words for radon progenies and radioactivity, or for alpha and beta particles, or gamma radiation. But Charley is changing that with his glossaries, constructing Navajo words for radiation-related terms.

From 2002 to 2006 Charley served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Improving Practices for Regulating and Managing Low-Activity Radioactive Wastes. The committee’s final report achieved little, but Charley’s work joined a cacophony of efforts at the grassroots level, which included decades of work by many small, community-advocacy organizations. Filmmaker Jeff Spitz made a documentary, The Return of Navajo Boy, chronicling the lives of Elsie Mae Begay and her family. In 2006 journalist Judy Pasternak published an in-depth, two-part report in the Los Angeles Times called “Blighted Homeland: A Peril That Dwelt among the Navajos.” Congressional hearings followed in 2007 and led to the five-year, multiagency cleanup plan, which began in 2008 but failed to meet the primary requests of the Navajo: removing all remaining contaminants off the Navajo lands along with a comprehensive health study.

While removing all contamination from thousands of square miles may well be financially and logistically unfeasible, a new health study has just begun. The Navajo Birth Cohort Study, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will look at the public-health impacts of mining and milling from before birth into childhood.

Uncertain Future

Uranium mining may soon return to Navajo lands despite the 2005 banning of mining by the Navajo Nation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has awarded four in situ uranium mining licenses to mine on Navajo lands and immediately adjacent to the Navajo Nation. All legal avenues to stop the threatened mining, which uses water to leach out uranium, have been exhausted. A local group, with the help of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2011, arguing that the NRC’s decision to grant Hydro Resources, Inc., a license to mine uranium ore is a violation of national and international laws, including the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document supported as U.S. policy since 2010.

Opponents fear the mines might contaminate drinking water for 15,000 Navajo residents in and around the two communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint, New Mexico, just outside the boundaries of the Navajo Nation. Uranium is not the only current environmental-health threat: five coal-fired plants surround the Navajo Nation. “We also have a rich reserve of coal,” says Charley, “and two of the most polluting power plants in America. . . . The air in the four corners area is yellow, and that is what we are breathing.” Despite the pollution, tribal administrators approved the building of another coal-fired plant. “Some of the very same public health impacts that I see in the coal industry I have seen and I have documented . . . on the uranium sites. They may have different names but the same respiratory disease, the same cancer, the same birth defects, the same environmental impacts in both of these industries. Put a ban on one and advocate the other.” Charley adds, “If this same contamination were in New York, it would be a Superfund site. But we do not have the population numbers to fulfill the criteria to qualify for Superfund cleanup. There are too few of us.”

Charley is being treated for a cancer in his throat, which doctors attribute to his years of living on the Navajo Nation and to his work on the abandoned mines. “In all my years, I never thought it would happen to me and I would be another victim,” says Charley. Despite his illness Charley continues to research, work, and teach at Diné College; to direct outreach for the Diné College Environmental Institute; and to speak to the public and to officials. He continues to build his glossary.

In 2011 Charley attended the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History. The Return of Navajo Boy was shown and followed by a discussion with panelists, including Charley; the filmmaker, Jeff Spitz; and the elder followed in the film, Elsie Mae Begay. Charley then produced a scintillation counter for measuring radiation and placed it next to a hand-sized piece of uranium rock sealed within several plastic bags. He asked the audience to imagine living their whole lives surrounded by rocks and debris from uranium mining sites. When he flipped the switch, the clicks began, coming louder and faster, the noise consuming the room. “Imagine living where this [rock] is thousands of times more prevalent, all around you, as in some areas of the Navajo Reservation, for almost three generations.” The audience listened, silent, except for the audible gasps.

Linda M. Richards, the 2010–2011 Doan Fellow at CHF’s Beckman Center, is currently researching nuclear and environmental justice history for a Ph.D. at Oregon State University.