MONUMENT VALLEY, San Juan County — The stretch of high desert on the Arizona-Utah border gives way to towering rock formations that resemble huge mittens, chimney spires and castles.
But to the west of Monument Valley lies a reminder of what has been blamed for much heartache and tragedy in Elsie Mae Begay's family: A mesa stained with a gray streak where uranium was mined decades ago.
Begay, 71, has spent more than 30 years living among residue piles that her children slid down when they were younger, and other contaminated waste carried down the nearby arroyo or kicked up by high winds. She's taken her story of the dangers of uranium to college campuses and Congress, along with a documentary outlining her family's plight.
Now it's being cleaned up, and Begay is partly to thank.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is wrapping up a $7.5 million project that uses a cable system to transport some 20,000 cubic yards of material up Oljato Mesa, where it came from. A lined repository atop the mesa will hold the waste that Navajo Nation officials eventually want taken off tribal land.
The cleanup at the Skyline Mine represents not only a reduced risk of exposure for Begay and her family, but marks the first significant remediation of a mine on the country's largest American Indian reservation where such sites number in the hundreds.
Tests have found gamma radiation activity greater than two times the background level at 80 locations on the site. In the traditional Navajo home where Begay once lived with two of her sons, the radiation levels were up to 100 times the acceptable level. The two sons have died — one of lung cancer and the other from a tumor. The EPA tore down the home in 2001.
"What we've been asking for is not fallacy," said Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the tribe's EPA. "It's not stuff we're making up. There are real problems out there that need to be addressed."
The family's troubles with uranium are highlighted in a documentary about Begay's brother, who was adopted by white missionaries and later reunited with his family, and in the book, "Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed." Begay has traveled across the reservation and the country with the film, "The Return of Navajo Boy."
There's little doubt that the film and Begay helped push the Skyline Mine higher up the priority list for cleanup. But the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency notes that its efforts to map the extent of abandoned uranium mines and the impacts of contamination on the vast reservation began well before the film was released in 2000. An epilogue was added in 2008, and videos posted online document the cleanup.
"Hard to say how it might have been ranked," said Jason Musante, who is overseeing the cleanup effort for the federal government. "Its visibility alone may have kicked it up the scale. That film and Elsie's involvement definitely brought it to the forefront."
Skyline is one of six regions where uranium was mined on the reservation that stretches into Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Nearly four tons of ore was extracted from Navajo land over more than four decades. Miners mostly scraped the surface and sent the ore down a gondola on a cable system, then trucked it away from the valley floor. Concerns over safety and the health of its people led the Navajo Nation to ban any further uranium mining in 2005.
Begay shields her eyes from the sun as she looks from her home toward the mesa. The only sounds come from the machinery hauling the dirt from the valley floor. A flock of sheep grazes nearby as Begay recalls warnings not to eat such animals for fear they drank tainted water or breathed in contaminated dust that could sicken people.
When anyone gets sick here, they often point to uranium as the culprit. Local high school principal Pat Seltzer estimates that 60 percent of the students in grades 7-12 have a family member whose death they trace to uranium.
Many Navajos, unaware of the dangers of contamination, built their homes with chunks of uranium ore and mill tailings, which is the residue from ore preparation. Begay hand-washed clothing that carried uranium dust. By the late 1970s when the mines began closing, some miners were dying of lung cancer, emphysema or other radiation-related ailments.
Begay moved below Oljato Mesa in 1978, years after production ceased at Skyline Mine. She recently had throat surgery due to thyroid cancer.
"They never can tell me" if it is related to uranium, she says, then pauses. "It might have been."
Navajo officials, along with the federal EPA, began aggressively targeting the abandoned mines within the last decade. A five-year, multi-agency plan was developed and implemented to address contamination. Federal agencies also sampled 250 unregulated water sources and found that 28 exceed drinking water standards for uranium or radionuclides. Three were shut down.
The tribe and the EPA have screened 638 structures within a mile of one abandoned uranium mine. Of those, 34 were torn down and 14 rebuilt.
Six more demolitions are planned next year.
"You're going to see more people come to understand uranium's pervasiveness," Etsitty said. "We're going to do everything we can to take care of manmade activities. We're going to have to go back to some of the teachings, advice from long ago, which is 'leave it alone.'"
Begay sees her efforts as a way to raise awareness about uranium and to validate the concerns of families in other situations. Her family made the link between uranium and sickness after a medicine man told them "there was something blowing around our place," she said.
Despite her activism, a largely complacent attitude remains in the community. Begay and others say they've seen countless promises unfulfilled.
And they say, more often than not, Navajos tend to accept the conditions rather than make noise about it.
"I think they have issues or concerns, they're just not actually seeking out solutions," Musante said of his observations at community meetings.4 comments on this story
Seltzer, the principal, says the school hasn't done as much as it could to educate students on the history of uranium mining and the impact, even though it happened around them. Nor do many residents see Begay's story as a rallying call, she adds.
Some teachers have used the documentary, other films and books that include local folks to broach the subject.
"There are some people who feel like Elsie is taking advantage of our situation for personal gain, rather than getting behind her to say, 'This is great, she's speaking for us,'" Seltzer says.
"The other people at the other mines are just sitting back and waiting for their turn," Seltzer says.