FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — For decades, Elsie Begay and her family tied sickness and death to the contaminated uranium waste that sat at the foot of a mesa on the Arizona-Utah border and was scattered throughout an arroyo near their homes.
Now it's gone, along with the threat of continued radiation exposure for the handful of families living on the valley floor. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrapped up the $7.5 million cleanup project at Oljato Mesa this week, marking the first significant remediation of a mine site on the Navajo Nation.
"Our big concern was people going right up to the piles and being exposed to gamma radiation, and we've mitigated that threat," said Jason Musante, who oversaw the cleanup of Skyline Mine for the EPA.
Miners had scraped the surface of the mesa and sent uranium ore down a gondola. A similar cable system was used to carry 25,000 cubic yards of contaminated waste back up the mesa where it came from.
The waste now lies in a dome-shaped repository atop the mesa in Monument Valley, Utah, and out of Begay's view.
The only remaining sign that uranium was mined there is a vertical gray streak that has stained the mesa. Begay advocated for its removal, but the EPA said that would be too dangerous of a task and doesn't present any harm to people's health.
"Even though it's still there, I think it's safe," Begay said Wednesday. "It's all done."
Skyline is in 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. Such mining is now banned on the 27,000 square-mile reservation.
James Nez has driven by the mine site for months as the cleanup progressed and said it offers a good start for the residents who moved back into the area last month.
By the late 1970s when the mines began closing around the reservation, miners were dying of lung cancer, emphysema or other radiation-related ailments.
Tests found gamma radiation activity greater than two times the background level at 80 locations at the Skyline site. In the traditional Navajo home where Begay once lived with her children, the radiation levels were up to 100 times the acceptable level. Two of her sons died — one of lung cancer and the other from a tumor.
"That cleanup should have been done a lot sooner, not only here in Oljato but in other areas on the Navajo Nation," Nez said. "It's a work in progress, and hopefully other chapters that are affected by uranium mining get the same quality treatment that was given to Oljato."
The EPA and its Navajo Nation counterpart are working to address hundreds of abandoned mines on the reservation.
Musante said the EPA also would work with tribal officials on a plan to monitor the repository at least once a year to make sure the soil that covers it stays in place and protects the liner underneath. A berm and graded soil will prevent any water from running down the face of the mesa, he said.
Meanwhile, Begay said she will continue traveling to tell about her family's plight with uranium. The story is highlighted in a documentary about her brother, who was adopted by white missionaries and later reunited with his family. It is showing in the reservation towns of Shiprock and Farmington in New Mexico this week, along with a new epilogue that reflects the completion of the cleanup.
"It isn't meant to close the story completely," said Jeff Spitz, who produced "The Return of Navajo Boy. "It's meant to resolve Elsie's situation and show there are many others like her who are waiting for the same attention. That's the road ahead."
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