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Waxman sets stage for progress at Navajo uranium hearing

WASHINGTON - The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the House of Representatives held a hearing on the impact of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation Oct. 23. At its close, committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., suggested a December meeting among federal agencies, hearing witnesses and Navajo representatives.

The meeting will be devoted to ironing out the authorities the agencies need to redress Navajo grievances and how much that will cost, said Simon Boyce, policy director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office. The nation hopes to expand the cleanup of abandoned, so-called ''legacy'' uranium mining sites, as well as the types of compensatory claims that can be filed and the documentation acceptable as proofs of residence in uranium-contaminated regions, he said.

The Navajo now ban uranium mining and processing within their territorial borders, but the health and environmental aftermath of uranium extraction in years past is a long-standing sore point.

Of Waxman, Boyce added, ''He seemed in my mind to be visibly upset with the government's response to this'' - that is, to an environmental injustice that has been taking place for 50 years, according to Boyce.

Navajo witnesses at the hearing seconded him with their testimony. George Arthur, chairman of the Navajo Nation Council Resources Committee, said the nation has served the United States as an ''energy colony,'' burdened with the ills and bereft the blessings of their mineral riches.

Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, described four decommissioned uranium processing sites at population centers across the vast Navajo landscape. In closing down the plants, the federal government left radioactive tailings (ore residue) in place under caps of rock and clay, he said.

''None of the sites were lined, meaning that there was nothing placed underneath the radioactive materials to keep them from leaching into the groundwater. ... We believe that is exactly what is happening today.''

In Tuba City, Ariz., and Shiprock, N.M., Etsitty added chemical groundwater contamination is moving toward municipal drinking wells.

''We know the federal government is working on that contamination. ... We also know that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to construct a solid waste, not to mention a hazardous waste, landfill in your home state today in accordance with current environmental laws and regulations unless that landfill was built with a liner to protect the underlying groundwater. Yet in my homeland ... we have what amounts to four unlined radioactive waste dumps threatening our groundwater.''

More than 600 former uranium mining sites are on Navajo land or within a mile of it, he said, along with 1,200 associated site features such as piles of contaminated waste.

Ray Manygoats of Tuba City said his father worked in a uranium mill. He came home every evening in a uniform thick with yellow dust, and every night the family would wash the uniform with water collected from near the unfenced mill. ''We scrubbed, but the uniform was always yellow with the dust. ... Yellow stuff was always everywhere.'' The family has always been unhealthy, from the father's breathing problems to the mother's death from cancer to the relative who couldn't grow hair and had to wear a wig.

''We know now that we are sick because of the uranium. ... I am here on behalf of my community to ask for your help; to ask that we move past promises to actions. Actions that may save our children from the sickness and the poison that we are now living with.''