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Tainted Desert

Struggling to reclaim their health and land after decades of uranium mining, the Navajos find a strong advocate at Tufts

As a boy, Doug Brugge lived in a double-wide trailer on the Navajo reservation, near an old Indian trading post. It was a modest dwelling, but the towering mesas and red valleys of the West were his backyard. “You could just run out the back door and play,” says Brugge, whose father worked as an anthropologist for the Navaho Nation and the National Park Service. But there were dangers, too. Flash floods would fill the arroyos, and children could fall in and drown. And one time his sister brought home a new pet in a Dixie cup—a scorpion—that made their mother scream.

It wasn’t until he traveled back to the reservation at the age of thirty-two that Brugge realized a far greater danger had lurked all around him: the sacred land of the Navajos—which had once supplied America’s nuclear weapons program—silently throbs with radiation.

From 1944 to 1986, nearly four million tons of uranium ore was extracted from the reservation, an area the size of West Virginia that spans northeastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah. When demand for uranium dried up at the end of the Cold War, the mining companies simply abandoned the roughly thirteen hundred mines, leaving behind radioactive waste piles known as uranium tailings. Navajos inhaled radioactive dust and drank water contaminated with uranium, arsenic, and other heavy metals, and the cancer death rate there doubled, according to Indian Health Service data.

Brugge, who had gone east to earn a Ph.D. in cellular and developmental biology and an M.S. in industrial hygiene from Harvard and had become a professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine, wanted to understand what had happened to the land and the people he had known as a child. He also wanted to practice science without being “stuck in a lab,” and he reasoned that investigating radiation on the reservation would give him a way to stay in the field. “I wrote my first grant and it got funded. That was a revelation,” says Brugge (pronounced “briggy”). “I figured, if I can keep writing grants, I can make this work for me.”

Grants subsidized Brugge’s first book, Memories Come to Us in the Rain and the Wind, published in 1997, a series of interviews he and two partners conducted with Navajos affected by uranium mining. Next he wrote papers on uranium for peer-reviewed journals. He testified before Congress for the Navajo government. He became a conservationist and an ardent student of uranium.

“Uranium ore has all these things in it—radium, thorium, uranium,” Brugge says. He explains that the ore’s deadly properties are released only when it is dug up. “Radium decays into radon, and radon decays into a whole series of radioactive isotopes very quickly that are giving off all these alpha particles. When these particles lodge in your lung, that is a disaster for your health. They cause lung cancer.”

Today, Brugge is a leading expert on uranium, and consults on nuclear policy issues worldwide. But he also devotes much of his time to the ravaged homeland of the Navajo people, intent on bringing about some measure of what he calls environmental justice. He presses for health studies and works with federal and tribal organizations on legislation to clean up mine waste and compensate miners who get sick from uranium. He shares both his scientific expertise and his knowledge of the place where he grew up, a place where people can be mistrustful of outsiders and skeptical of government interference.

The view from the top of the Skyline Mine in Monument Valley, Utah, is straight out of an old John Ford Western—a sweeping panorama of a valley edged by cliffs and twisted fingers of rock. Eight hundred feet below the former uranium mine, at the bottom of the valley, sits the tiny hogan of a Navajo grandmother named Elsie Begay.

Thirty years ago, Begay had the concrete floor of her traditional Navajo home built out of material that was free and readily available and, unbeknownst to her, radioactive: loose rock that had washed down the mesa where the Skyline mine had once operated. After losing two sons—one to a brain tumor, the other to lung cancer—Begay asked for help, and Doug Brugge was among those who responded.

Brugge learned that Begay’s children had played on the floor and that family members had slept either on mattresses directly on the floor or on carpets. “All these scenarios mean that heads, bodies, and reproductive organs rested for lengthy periods directly on the source of radiation,” he says.

The Environmental Protection Agency tested the house. Sure enough, the agency found that the level of radiation “would result in an exposure that is about forty-four times larger than is considered acceptable” by both its own standards and those of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says Brugge. A documentary, The Return of Navajo Boy, for which Brugge served as scientific consultant, aired on PBS in 2000 and touched off a flood of publicity. A 2005 series in the Los Angeles Times that also told Elsie Begay’s story helped bring attention to the Navajos’ predicament.

In 2007, after decades of government indifference, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), then chair of the House Oversight Committee, pressed for immediate action. He held a congressional hearing at which Brugge testified as a scientific witness for the Navajo Nation, describing how waste from uranium mining can cause cancer and urging more research. “If we are to understand the full extent of this injustice, we will need additional health studies,” Brugge said. Following the hearing, the government enacted a five-year, multi-agency initiative to remediate the worst of the contaminated structures on the reservation, and Skyline was the first site slated for cleanup.

The problems were far from over, however. The initial plan for Skyline was to remove two piles of contaminated soil from the bottom of the mesa. But Jason Musante, who oversaw the $7.5 million Skyline cleanup for the EPA, soon learned that the job was bigger. “As I was looking up, there was visible mine waste—this grayish material,” he says. “I realized—that stuff is going to keep coming down. We’ve got to get that, too.” Crews ended up using an excavator to scoop some twenty thousand cubic yards of waste from the valley floor and haul it with a motorized pulley to the mesa top. They also had to improve the existing dirt roads, which were no wider than mule paths, for use by heavy trucks.

At the same time, Musante was grappling with deep-rooted mistrust on the Navajo reservation. “It takes a little while for people to open up out here,” he says. “Typically, Navajos don’t do big displays of emotion. They can be angry or happy and you’ll never know. That’s just cultural, it’s not anything personal.” The cultural barrier was not the only issue, though.

The truth is that the Navajos had every reason to be wary, according to Brugge. “By the start of uranium mining in the U.S. in the late forties,” he says, “government scientists understood that radon causes lung cancer. That’s the basis for saying this was a serious ethical failure on the part of the federal government. They should have regulated it, they should have protected people, but instead they studied them for another fifteen years and watched it happen.”

Countering this rocky history called for diplomacy. For two years before the actual cleanup, Musante was flying out to the reservation to meet with Navajo leaders and begin addressing their concerns. He says he “bent over backwards” to find solutions agreeable to the community. Still, there was one wish he was not able to accommodate: to move all the contaminated waste someplace else. His solution was to bury the waste in a giant plastic-lined repository on top of the mesa. “This material is not screaming hot, and there’s literally not enough money to drive all of it off Navajo lands,” he says. “That’s a political issue, because the Navajos say ’We want this stuff off our land.’ But it’s their land. This is their stuff.”

The cleanup of Skyline was completed in October 2011 and hailed as a milestone by the EPA. But many Navajos are still skeptical. “That’s what they want you to see—something that’s all nice and cleaned up,” says the Navajo manager of a hotel near Skyline, who asked not to be identified. He says he and “a buddy” were taking water samples from the San Juan River in back of his hotel and sending them to a private lab in Phoenix for testing. The operation, he says, “was shut down by the Feds. The government doesn’t want people to know that Navajos are living in a hot area.”

In the dust-choked towns and ramshackle outcroppings of trailers and cinderblock dwellings on the reservation, water is an all-consuming issue. Homes frequently lack running water and indoor plumbing. Worse, one out of three Navajos has no access to clean drinking water. Many wells and springs are still contaminated with uranium, in addition to arsenic and other heavy metals left over from mining. “This is not Haiti; it’s here in the United States—people without potable drinking water,” Brugge observes.

Some Navajos, like Wilbur Huskin, who is fifty-five, today rue a lifetime’s exposure to contaminated water. “The government didn’t tell us the water was no good,” he says, remembering that it always had a strange consistency. “It was thick,” he says. “Like syrup.”

Huskin’s family suffers from a variety of ills, some of which may be attributable to drinking tainted water, others of which could stem from working in the mines. His brother Jerry Huskon—the surname is spelled differently because they attended different schools—is a former miner who has lung cancer. Jerry’s wife, Florabell, has a long list of health issues, including asthma, bronchitis, anemia, and liver problems. Ten years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer of the gall bladder. The three live together in a hogan surrounded by red cliffs and mesas and buttressed by American flags they have posted around the property.

When asked if he thinks the government knew the water was contaminated, Wilbur Huskin responds, “I know they knew. They had engineers come through doing surveys and they were wearing masks.”

For many, the only way to get clean water is to haul it from remote locations, a weekly chore that takes hours and requires lifting heavy barrels. The water must then be siphoned into smaller buckets for daily use.

Ronald Tohannie, a sturdy fifty-four-year-old Navajo with black-framed glasses and worker’s hands, is accustomed to the job. On a hot day in August, he loads his pickup truck with two blue plastic fifty-five-gallon drums and drives for an hour to a community well. Using a government-issued “water card” he unlocks a spigot. The brownish water reeks of sulfur, but it is regularly tested for contamination and has been deemed safe to drink by the U.S. government.

Tohannie just wishes he could bring home more of it. “You get kind of stingy with the water,” he says with a chuckle, pointing out that the 110 gallons he hauls must last his family of six one week. It is used for drinking, livestock, cooking, laundry, and bathing—in that order. “Usually we don’t have enough at the end of the week,” he says. “So we bathe in the river.” Tohannie has taken on the role of project manager for water with a grassroots organization called Forgotten People, whose projects range from lobbying for legislation against new mining activities to trucking clean water onto the reservation.

In January 2011, Forgotten People asked Brugge’s help in assessing an EPA report performed on a newly discovered uranium mine, Site 457. A cattle rancher had stumbled upon its crumbling concrete structure in the middle of the desert. Back in Boston, Brugge glances at the report, which is sitting on his desk. He shakes his head. “Why are people on the ground out there identifying sites that aren’t on any lists—after all this time? It’s a vast area, that’s some of it,” he says, his voice trailing. “But it’s still hard to understand. It makes you wonder how much more that we don’t know about is still out there.”

Brugge finds this site particularly worrisome, as it lies close to the Little Colorado River Basin. “The contamination could be moving from the site into the Colorado River,” he says. “Contamination can leach slowly for decades, depending on the movement of water. I’m not a hydrologist, but it seems likely that groundwater would flow toward the river, since that is almost always the case when a site is in the immediate vicinity of a river.” The Colorado supplies drinking water to millions of people, from Arizona to California.

On the other side of the reservation, Alice Tso, age eighty, sits on a makeshift patio that offers some shade from the searing desert sun. She is flanked by the trappings typical of dwellings in the poorest part of the Navajo reservation—a rickety wooden outhouse, spent propane canisters used for cooking, and a pair of blue fifty-five-gallon drums. Plastic chairs are set out for visitors, who are offered coffee and Twinkies.

Tso was operated on for kidney cancer in her forties and has been living with one kidney ever since. Her forty-five-year-old daughter Linda Tso Begay (no relation to Elsie Begay) has a urinary tract infection that dates from childhood. Normally, such infections clear up in a matter of days with antibiotics, but Begay’s Indian Health Service doctors in Tuba City have not been able to cure her. Now they’re worried that it is a precursor to kidney cancer—the same disease her mother has. “With my condition, I’m not ashamed to say I have to pee all the time,” she says. “Sometimes I soak a pad with hot water and put it between my legs, and that’s the only thing that helps.”

The local well water is known to be contaminated. “My dad has been bringing that water since we were little,” she says. Asked if she still drinks the same well water, she responds, “Sometimes.” Asked if she is afraid, knowing the danger, she shrugs. “If it was blue or red maybe. But it’s clear and cold and it still tastes good to us. And at times,” she confesses, “there is no choice.”

Tso and her daughter have never received any compensation for their illnesses because they have not been able to prove a link to uranium. Brugge says this is typical, and it’s the reason health studies are so important. “The vast majority of research has been on miners, and the research base on the community is very shallow,” he notes. “That is not just a political problem, it’s also a scientific problem.” Yet while he acknowledges that “there’s a lot we don’t know,” he takes pains to remind people of what we do know. An article he coauthored, recently published in the scientific journal Reviews on Environmental Health, reports that new studies suggest uranium harms the brain and reproductive system. It also points out that longstanding evidence indicates uranium is a kidney toxin as well as a cause of genetic damage and birth defects.

Linda Begay, for her part, seems resigned to her lot and mostly looks toward the future. She has three children, in their late teens and early twenties. Hers is one of the families that could benefit from Forgotten People’s recent EPA-funded pilot project to truck clean water to the reservation from outside. A 500-gallon drum, almost ten times the size of the barrels the family currently uses, sits in the shed still in its plastic wrap.

“I wish they would have discovered this a long time ago,” she says of the contamination on Navajo lands. “Maybe I would have had a better life. I would have stayed in school and maybe moved to another place, off the reservation. That’s why I push my kids to do more. Even if I have a health problem, they’ll never look back and worry about me. I don’t want that. I want them to move on.”

Brugge, too, has his eyes on the next generation of Navajos. Last November he traveled to the Red Valley/Cove High School in Red Valley, Arizona, to give a talk and help develop a curriculum about the effects of uranium. “It’s a particular strength of the Navajos,” he says, “that these young people are so respectful of their elders and concerned about them and about learning from their experience. I see hope in the young Navajos.”

Even the knowledge that the five-year government cleanup plan is set to end in 2012 doesn’t discourage him. “There is a long way to go, but they are making a start. Thoroughly remediating some of the worst mines, laying pipe to bring clean water to hundreds of homes previously without. Trucking water to other homes. The important thing is that they keep on this path and not give up.”

LESLIE MACMILLAN, a Boston-area freelance writer, has written for the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald, and her short fiction and book reviews have been published in the Gettysburg Review, the Charles River Review, and the Harvard Review.

  © 2012 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155