Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hearing on the Health and Environmental Impacts of Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation

Chairman Waxman's Opening Statement

Throughout this year, our Committee has held a series of hearings on making government work again. Weíve focused on programs or agencies that once were effective but are now broken or dysfunctional.

Todayís hearing is a variation of that theme. This morning we are looking at an instance where the government has never worked effectively. Itís been a bipartisan failure for over 40 years.

Itís also a modern American tragedy. For decades the Navajo Nation has been dealing with the deadly consequences of radioactive pollution from uranium mining and milling. Last year a superb series of articles in the Los Angeles Times described the impacts of the pervasive contamination. It has been devastating for the Navajo people and their lands.

The primary responsibility for this tragedy rests with the federal government, which holds the Navajo lands in trust for the Tribe. Our government leased the lands for uranium mining, purchased the uranium yellowcake produced from the mines to supply our nuclear weapons stockpile, and then allowed the operators of the mines and mills to walk away without cleaning up the resulting contamination.

The federal governmentís responsibility dates back to the late 1940s when mining began under the Truman Administration. The contamination continued and remained largely unaddressed through the next ten Administrations, Republican and Democratic alike.

As we will hear today, the federal government has, over the past 30 years, taken some important steps to help the Navajo reclaim some of their lands. But, as we will also hear today, much contamination remains, both on the surface and in the groundwater. It is the federal governmentís responsibility to see that this contamination is fully remediated.

As you can see from this map, the Navajo Nation covers an area larger than the state of West Virginia. It lies within the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Today, over 250,000 Navajos are members of the Navajo Nation, which has its own government.

Between the 1940s and the 1980s, millions of tons of uranium ore were mined from the Navajo Nation. Private companies mined the ore in order to supply the federal government with the uranium yellowcake it needed to build a nuclear weapons stockpile for the Cold War. For many years, the U.S. government was the sole customer for this uranium.

After the mining ended in the late 1980s, literally hundreds of radioactive mines in the Navajo Nation were abandoned. The companies that had leased the lands simply walked away without cleaning them up. Many of these sites were abandoned in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. In most cases, the mines were left wide open with no warnings about the dangers they posed. Five mill sites, where uranium ore was processed, were also left behind with their giant mounds of radioactive uranium tailings.

Over the years, open pit mines filled with rain, and Navajos used the resulting pools for drinking water and to water their herds. Mill tailings and chunks of uranium ore were used to build foundations, floors, and walls for some Navajo homes. Families lived in these radioactive structures for decades. Radioactive dust from abandoned mines and waste piles blew in the air and was inhaled by those who lived nearby. Navajo children played in the mines and the piles of radioactive debris. They drank contaminated water that came straight from the mines.

This isnít something that only happened during a bygone era when school children kneeled under their desks during nuclear bomb drills and Americans built underground bomb shelters in their back yards.

Navajo kids were swimming in open pit uranium mines in the 1990s. When the U.S. EPA took readings at one mine site, the radium levels were over 270 times the EPA standard. That was last year. And American citizens are still drinking contaminated water, breathing in radioactive dust, and likely living in radioactive homes ó today. Thatís happening today. Right now.

Because of this contamination, the Navajo people, especially those living near the abandoned mines and the former mill sites, are at higher risk for cancer and for kidney failure. Unfortunately, we do not have a full understanding of the extent of this risk, because there has never been a comprehensive health survey of the effects of the surface and groundwater contamination.

But we are fortunate to have with us today individuals who live in the Navajo Nation and who can share their personal experiences. Although they come from different areas of the Navajo Nation, and in some cases live hundreds of miles apart, weíll hear about the very similar threats and devastating impacts.

In recent years, federal agencies have taken some initial steps towards grappling with this problem. Weíll hear about the work those agencies have done and are doing. But weíll also hear that much, much more needs to be done.

If a fraction of the deadly contamination the Navajos live with every day had been in Beverly Hills or any wealthy community, it would have been cleaned up immediately. But a different standard applied to Navajo lands. Half-measures or outright neglect has been the official response. Itís hard to review this record and not feel ashamed. Whatís happened just isnít right.

And thatís why we are holding todayís hearing. We want to know what has to be done, who needs to do it, and what resources will be required to fix this. No member of this Committee represents Navajo lands, but we all want to know how we will finish cleaning up the mess that was created by the federal governmentís past need for uranium and the ensuing failure to ensure that the mines and mills that produced this uranium did not contaminate the land and the groundwater.

Even as we hold this hearing, there is new interest in resuming mining on or near the Navajo Nation. I donít have any special expertise to evaluate the wisdom of that prospect. As a general rule, however, I think that we ought to correct the wrongs of the past before inflicting new damage and we ought to ensure that mistakes of the past arenít repeated.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses and to working with all of them to correct this unacceptable situation as quickly as possible.