CDC Navajo Study Makes History but not the News

U.S. Representatives Pledge Continuing Support

By ERIC SHULTZ

The largest radioactive release in U.S. history was not Three Mile Island, but the over 90 million gallon 1979 Church Rock waste pond failure on the Navajo Reservation. This is in addition to the over 500 abandoned uranium mines and around 1000 uranium mining and milling waste sites across the Diné (Navajo) homeland. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has begun the first-ever study of health effects from this colossal contamination.

Logo for the CDC’s Navajo Birth Cohort Study taken from a draft brochure designed to recruit pregnant women to participate in the prenatal-through-early-childhood study of uranium health effects. Source: http://www.reginfo.gov.

After three years of design and review, researchers are poised to begin the actual collecting of data, at the same time offering immediate returns – such as early detection of health and developmental problems followed with appropriate referrals – to hundreds of Diné infants and their families. Last week four members of Congress, including New Mexico’s Ben Ray Lujan, wrote the CDC director requesting a status report on this history-making act of environmental justice, in part to reaffirm their commitment to keep the project funded to completion. The Representatives issued press releases, echoed by various online news agencies, thus putting the story on the major media’s radar. And the story has been picked up, but by only one news outlet (as evidenced by search engine results on August 23), KUNM Radio (it is the University of New Mexico’s Community Environmental Health Program that is actually conducting the study for the CDC). The rest of the media have treated this news item as if it were, well, radioactive.

At a moment when the mining industry is maneuvering to resume uranium extraction on Navajo lands (see an update by La Jicarita’s Kay Matthews here), could the corporate media’s lack of interest in a ground-breaking study of uranium’s health impacts on a singularly abused and exploited population reflect a corporate bias? Look for La Jicarita’s in-depth report on the CDC’s “Navajo Birth Cohort Study” and the politics surrounding it in the coming days. In continuation is the Representatives’ August 16, 2012 letter to CDC director Thomas R. Frieden:

Dear Dr. Frieden:

We write to request information regarding the study on the reproductive and developmental impacts associated with non-occupational exposure to abandoned uranium mine and waste sites in the Navajo Nation that is being conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). This study was mandated by Congress due to public health concerns associated with past uranium mining and milling on tribal lands. It is our understanding that participant enrollment for the study is expected to begin soon. We believe this study is of great importance, as it would be the first detailed look at the public health impacts of past uranium mining and milling operations on Navajo children. It is therefore imperative that appropriate resources be directed to its completion.

Uranium mining on and near tribal lands that occurred over four decades (from the 1940s through the 1980s) has left behind hundreds of abandoneduranium mines, inactive uranium milling sites, former dump sites, contaminated groundwater, structures that contain elevated levels of radiation, and numerous environmental and public health concerns. Many of these remaining sites require extensive remediation to clean up structures and water sources that are contaminated above safe levels. For example, the Pryor Mountain Mine in Montana, located close to an Indian reservation and near hiking trails and campsites, presented levels of radioactive contamination that were up to 369 times higher than normal background levels.1 Another site, the 320-acre open pit Midnite Mine site in Washington State is located within the reservation of the Spokane Tribe of Indians and remediation is estimated to be as high as $193 million. Although this mine has not been in operation since 1981, cleanup is ongoing and includes treatment of acid drainage, removal of 33 million tons of waste materials, remediation of high levels of toxic and radioactive chemicals and treatment of contaminated surface and groundwater.2 While there are currently no active mines located on tribal lands, an increase in the value of uranium has led to a renewed interest in mining for uranium on these and other federally managed sites.

The Navajo Nation Reservation, comprising approximately 27,000 acres [sic: this number actually approximates the reservation’s area in square miles; the number in acres is around 16 million. Oops!] in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, was heavily mined for uranium to support development of the atomic bomb and subsequent cold-war weapons production from 1942 through the late-1960s. Although the last operating mines on the Navajo nation closed in the mid- 1980s, five hundred abandoned uranium mines and additional waste sites were left behind, most of which have never been remediated. In spite of the potential for longterm, chronic exposures to community members, no comprehensive health studies have ever been conducted to assess the impact on the Navajo people from exposures to this uranium contamination.

In 2008, in response to a request by Congress, five federal agencies developed a 5-year plan to begin addressing the uranium contamination in and around the Navajo Nation. The plan includes a study of the health effects of non-occupational uranium exposure.3 In response to community concerns, the study was to focus primarily on pregnancy and neonatal outcomes in a uranium-exposed population. When completed, this study, frequently referred to as the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, will be the first effort to identify whether and how confirmed exposure to uranium contamination affects the development of children in these communities.

Congress directed ATSDR to conduct this study and, beginning in FY2010, appropriated funds as a part of CDC’s budget. In August 2010, CDC awarded a three year $1 million per year (FY 2010-2012) cooperative agreement to the University of New Mexico Community Environmental Health Program to work with CDC/ ATSDR, the Navajo Area Indian Health Service (NAIHS), and the Navajo Nation to design and conduct the Navajo Birth Cohort Study. Congress continues to support this study. The FY2013 Interior-Environment Appropriations bill that passed the House Committee on Appropriations on June 28, 2012 includes language that preserves $2 million for this purpose. The study is designed to enroll approximately 1,500 expecting mothers, assessing their uranium exposure at key points during pregnancy, and then following their children post-birth to evaluate any associations with birth defects and developmental delays. Moreover, the research is intended to provide broad public health benefits for Navajo communities through increased use of prenatal care and earlier identification and referrals of developmental delays.

We request that you provide us with a written update on the status of this important study, including the timeline and process for initiating and completing enrollment of participants, the schedule for completion of the study, a description of the reasons for any past or current delays in implementation, and the study’s anticipated future resource needs. We support this study and look forward to working with you to ensure that it is successfully completed.

Sincerely,

Edward J. Markey, Ranking Member, Natural Resources Committee

Ben Ray Lujan, Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs

Henry A. Waxman, Ranking Member, Energy and Commerce

Frank Pallone, Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Health

1.GAO-12-544, Uranium Mining: Opportunities Exist to Improve Oversight and Financial Assurances. May 2012.

2. Ibid 1.

3. A copy of the Five-Year Plan is available at http://www.epa.gov/region9/superfund/navajonation/pdf/NN-5-Year-Plan-June-12.pdf

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2 comments

  1. What is truly evil is that thousands of Dine’ people were relocated to crappy, radiated housing in Chambers & Sanders (called the “New Lands”) where the SOLE water source is the same Rio Puerco river that the 97 million gallons of highly radioactive waste spilled into. In retrospect the mistreatment of Dine’ people due to forced relocation so Peabody Coal could expand it’s illegal mining operations; theft of pristine lands; premature deaths of over half the 16,000 people forcibly removed; placing them in horrid housing & lack of addressing high youth & adult suicide rates not to mention murder rates; will be seen as the worst human rights violation of the late 20th century. My heart aches! Thanks for this! So LONG overdue!!!!

    In the later ’80’s, i drove with Dine resistance elder, Pauline Whitesinger to visit her relatives in the “New Lands”. We spent the night there and i drank the sacred, contaminated waters of the Rio Puerco. We all knew about this back then. Who paid any attention to the forced relocation? Who cared that people were doomed to radiated holding facilities where they lost their way of life and were forced into this ugly, remote, arid region far away from their beautiful lands? There are not alcohol sales on the reservation, but in the “New Lands” i saw a bar called “Hooches” that was packed with cars on that sad Sunday while most of the homes in the ugly housing tracts were deserted. The stories of people dying from drinking Lysol, standing in the way of oncoming trains, throwing themselves in front of oncoming traffic on Highway 40 were all too common. Slow motion genocide is what this is all about for profit.

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