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Long Before Flint Part I: Mining's Deadly Legacy Remains On Navajo Nation

uranium mine
Courtesy of the Navajo Nation Museum
Navajo miners near Cove, Ariz., dump tailings over the side of a mesa in 1952.

Maria Welch works for the Navajo Birth Cohort Study and drives all over the Navajo Nation to survey families.

“I’ll be asking you about feeding practices, any questions about stress, and things about the home. Are you currently breastfeeding baby?” she asks, clicking her long, glittery nails on her laptop.

Welch learns on this day that the mother mixes baby formula with tap water. Forty percent of the tribe lacks running water. Nearly a third of the study participants have high levels of uranium in their urine, compared to the United States population as a whole.

Mining companies blasted nearly four million tons of uranium out of Navajo land between 1944 and 1986. The federal government purchased the ore to make atomic weapons. As the Cold War threat petered out, the companies left, abandoning more than 500 mines.

The federal government is cleaning up a long legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. Many Navajo people have died of kidney failure and cancer — conditions linked to uranium contamination. And new research from the CDC shows uranium in babies born today.

Out of 599 participants, 27 percent had high levels of uranium in their urine compared to the U.S. population as a whole, which has 5 percent. Researchers are still trying to figure out the source of the uranium. It could be the water they drink, the air they breathe, or the livestock and crops they eat.

Welch got involved in this study because of her own family’s exposure to uranium. Both her parents grew up next to mines, even playing in contaminated water.

“When they did the mining, there would be these pools that would fill up,” Welch said. “And all of the kids swam in them. And my dad did too.”

Many Navajo unwittingly let their livestock drink from those pools, and their children play in mine debris piles. Some even built their homes out of uranium.

All four of Welch’s grandparents have died and she worries about her parents’ health and now her daughter’s. Cancer rates have doubled on the Navajo Nation from the 1970s to the 1990s.

“Why isn’t there more of an outrage?” Welch said. “Why isn’t there more of a community sense of what the heck is going on? How did this happen? Why is this still occurring? Why hasn’t anything being done?”

George McGraw, a human rights advocate working on the Navajo Nation, said, “Problems like this really disproportionately affect low income communities of color."

His organization DIGDEEP is raising money to dig wells on the reservation.

“Flint might feel really far away from the Navajo Nation in rural Arizona,” McGraw said. “But when you look at the demographics of it, it really isn’t. I mean this is a community that has found themselves voiceless.”

The U.S. Justice Department has recently gone after some of the mining companies. And EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld says since 2008 the agency has hauled away thousands of cubic yards of mine waste and has rebuilt nearly 50 contaminated homes. But there’s still much more to be done.

“We’re spending a lot of time making sure that the polluters pay, so it isn’t the federal taxpayer,” Blumenfeld said.

One company recently paid over a billion dollars. But a third of the mining companies have shut down or have run out of money. The federal government and tribal leaders knew about some of the dangers decades ago, but only started the cleanup in recent years.

“We understand that there’s frustration,” Blumenfeld said. “We share that frustration that some of this takes a long time.”

And the uranium issue on the Navajo Nation is part of a much bigger problem. Across the western United States there are more than 160,000 abandoned hardrock mines — thousands of which continue to pollute.

“Those are all located in the states that have the highest population of Native Americans,” said Johnye Lewis, director of community and environmental health and principal investigator at the University of New Mexico. “That’s very disconcerting to us — the primarily exposed group being the group we know the least about in terms of the effect of these metals.”

So Lewis said the findings from the Navajo Birth Cohort Study can be applied not only to Navajos but to other Native communities who are exposed to mining contamination.

The researchers hope to fund the study for another five years so they can design an intervention that can reduce the toxicity or develop an early warning system.

Map courtesy of the EPA.

Laurel Morales was a Fronteras Desk reporter in Flagstaff from 2011 to 2020.