The federal government plans to spend up to $3 million a year to demolish and rebuild uranium-contaminated structures across the Navajo Nation, where Cold War-era mining of the radioactive substance left a legacy of disease and death.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Navajo counterpart are focusing on homes, sheds and other buildings within a half-mile to a mile from a significant mine or waste pile. They plan to assess 500 structures over five years and rebuild those that are too badly contaminated.
"These families, with the resources they have, they would not be able to put up a new home for themselves," said Lillie Lane, a spokeswoman for the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency. "We don't know how radiation in the home affected these families, but in the end people will be living in safe homes."
Between the 1940s and the 1980s, millions of tons of uranium ore were mined from the 27,000 square-mile reservation that spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Many Navajos, unaware of the dangers of contamination, built their homes with chunks of uranium ore and mill tailings.
The U.S. EPA estimates it will cost $250,000 to demolish each structure, haul away the debris and rebuild. The residents of contaminated homes will not be charged for the rebuilding.
"If we find more homes that are contaminated, we certainly will work to find the resources to address them," said Clancy Tenley, associate director for tribal programs at the EPA in San Francisco.
The effort is part of a five-year plan that expires in 2012 in which a number of federal agencies joined together to address uranium contamination and its effects on the Navajo people. Navajos who toiled in the mines and their dependents have suffered or died from cancer, lung and kidney disease, and other health problems caused by exposure to low levels of radiation over time.
"There is growing confidence that each agency is stepping up to its responsibility and doing more," said Stephen Etsitty, director of the Navajo EPA.
Contamination still an issue
So far, the U.S. EPA has assessed 117 structures and demolished 27 of them. Thirteen have been or will be rebuilt, and the owners of the others received financial settlements.
Lane has done much of the outreach work, traveling to homes across the reservation to advise families of the EPA's efforts and securing agreements to allow officials to assess structures they believe are contaminated. She said most families are cooperative, though some have rejected the assessment without reason.
Crews measure the background levels of radiation against levels in the structure. If the levels are high, families are asked to move away from the property while it is demolished and rebuilt. Arrangements are made for them to stay in hotels and for their livestock and crops to be cared for if needed, Etsitty said.
With more than 500 abandoned uranium mines across the vast reservation, EPA officials acknowledge that the issue of uranium contamination is bigger than assessing and rebuilding structures. "We might have taken care of a good piece of the problem," Lane said, "(but) that's just a little part."
Navajo EPA officials worry about recontamination when it rains and contaminated soils are carried toward homes or into the drinking water supply. The caps that cover some former mining sites are eroding, and Etsitty said "we run the risk of the exposure happening again."
Tenley said that President Barack Obama is seeking $7.8 million in the 2010 federal budget to work on structures and abandoned mines on the Navajo reservation.
The project is stretching the staff at Navajo EPA thin and has forced other projects to be put on the back burner, Etsitty said. For every three U.S. EPA officials who go out in the field, two Navajo staffers must accompany them, partly to serve as interpreters.
The U.S. EPA has taken notice of the Navajo EPA's efforts and is honoring the agency in the tribal capital of Window Rock on Tuesday.