But many who are constricted by circumstance still use contaminated supplies
Uranium’s deadly flow
The Navajo Nation estimates that 54,000 Navajos haul water from unregulated wells and stock ponds numbering in the low thousands.
Twice a week, the Yazzies, 57-year-old Milton and 83-year-old Della, come down off their lonely hill on the Navajo Reservation’s western side and point themselves toward the city for the clean water they need to keep living. For ages, they drank from a well less than a mile from their home. Then they learned that poison lurked there.
Uranium is gurgling up all over Navajo country.
At least three Yazzies have died of kidney ailments, a common result of chronic exposure to uranium. Federal environmental officials warned against drinking more. Milton learned to conserve, using an outhouse across their driveway and leaving the tank-supplied indoor plumbing to Della, because of her failing eyesight.
He begged the tribe, the feds, anyone who would listen, to build a pipeline through the sparsely populated Black Falls area, southeast of Cameron.
When World War II spawned the nation’s nuclear program and then a nuclear-arms race, companies came digging. They unleashed a radioactive element that would leach into wells and springs. Not until decades later — and decades after many of the mining companies departed — would Painted Desert inhabitants know the real hazards left to them. Even today, true cleanup is in its infancy, with an uncertain growth chart.
The Navajo Nation estimates that 54,000 Navajos haul water from unregulated wells and stock ponds numbering in the low thousands, potentially putting them at risk for contamination from previously untested sources.
Thousands more, like the Yazzies, know the poison is in their communal wells. Water is the first thing on their minds whenever they leave home.
A dangerous well
Of 19 households in the surrounding hills in Box Springs, resident Rolanda Tohannie said, half have been visited by cancer.
One of them is Rolanda Tohannie. She lives just over a rise from Box Springs, one of the sources that the EPA closed.
“Most of my family is gone,” she said. “They all died of kidney failure. They blame that on the water.”
She has had tumors removed from her stomach and the back of her head.
“I believe they have taken out all of the uranium in me,” she said.
Still, she said, the water tastes better than bottled, and it’s most convenient to use what’s readily available. So she routinely uses Box Springs water for washing and gardening, and sometimes for coffee or drinking.
Linda Begay, 48, believes Box Springs uranium contamination caused her mother’s cancer and her own bladder infections and hematuria — blood in the urine and a possible sign of kidney problems. She now meets the tanker truck weekly to supply her family’s home and stock troughs, as well as her parents’ nearby home and hogan.
Her grandmother died in the 1980s of stomach cancer. That was the start of painful and mysterious ailments afflicting the family.
Her dad has skin lesions that are flaky and sometimes gooey. Her mom has suffered colon cancer, and had a 2-inch piece of intestine removed in a Phoenix hospital.
Her husband, an asphalt worker with long daily commutes, is healthy. But he grew up as a foster child in Utah, California and Colorado, away from the poison.
“I have the bladder infections all my life,” Begay said.
Of 19 households in the surrounding hills, she said, half have been visited by cancer.
“I think I’m going to get cancer,” she said.
- Abandoned uranium mines continue to haunt Navajos on reservation–Decades after America’s Cold War, the Colorado Plateau remains scarred, poisoning and frightening a people who still live with the radioactive residue of 521 abandoned mines scattered across their reservation’s 17.2 million acres.
- Uranium-mine cleanup on Navajo Reservation could take 100 years--Decades after the uranium mines and mills served their purpose, hundreds remain as health threats, many with no clear path to cleanup.