CHURCH ROCK, N.M. This community has become a poster child on the Navajo Nation, but residents don't brag about it.
Among the more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the vast reservation the size of West Virginia, the Northeast Church Rock Mine here tops the list as the most contaminated.
No one lives on the 220-acre property that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fenced off to keep livestock and people from roaming onto it.
But just 500 yards away from the fence and a 40-foot uranium mine waste pile lives Teddy Nez, a rancher who complains of breathing difficulties he attributes to the contamination.
Nez's children used to bathe in a now dry wash that carried waste from ponds where uranium was treated, and they made mud pies with radioactive dirt. The traditional herbs Nez collected nearby were contaminated by the soil.
"It's an imminent health hazard to the people who live here," said Chris Shuey of the Southwest Research and Information Center, who studies uranium issues. "Beyond that, it also symbolizes all the things that could go wrong, did go wrong."
Congress is taking notice of the issue, with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform looking at the impact of contamination on the country's largest Indian reservation. Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said "it's an issue that both parties should look on with deep regret.
"The federal government is finally taking responsibility for this modern American tragedy by beginning to fix the problem," Waxman said in an interview Friday. "It's going to take a number of years, and we've lost a lot of time already, but it's about time we got on with the job."
Waxman asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the EPA and Indian Health Services to develop a comprehensive plan to clean up the contamination, provide water supplies for residents consuming contaminated water and conduct studies of health risks.
The plan, released this month by the EPA, provides a five-year timeline and strategy for addressing the matter. Waxman's committee is scheduled to meet again in September to discuss progress on it.
Between the 1940s and the '80s, millions of tons of uranium ore were mined from the Navajo Nation. When the mining ended, companies left no warning about the dangers the contamination and a legacy of disease and death among Navajos, many of whom toiled in the mines. The tribe banned uranium mining on its lands in 2005.
Still, many Navajos drink from unregulated water sources and children play on contaminated soil. Some have homes built with chunks of uranium ore and mill tailings.
The EPA tested 50 unregulated water sources on the reservation this spring, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sampled another 100 sources and found that 22 of the wells had exceeded standards for radionuclides. All but one of the 22 wells were being used for human consumption, the EPA said.
The EPA has been working with the tribe to inform the community of the risk of consuming water from the wells and find an alternative water supply.
The agency also has identified about 20 structures on the northern part of the reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah that are in need of remediation due to contamination. That work is scheduled to be done this summer at a cost of between $100,000 and $300,000 per structure, according to the EPA's plan. Structures that are too badly contaminated may be demolished and replaced.
EPA is focusing largely on the Northeast Church Rock Mine, which is adjacent to a milling site. Another abandoned mine is just across a ditch.
Last year, the EPA removed 6,500 cubic yards of radium-contaminated soil around a handful of residences near the Northeast Church Rock Mine, including Nez's, as part of an emergency cleanup.
But for Nez, who has been advised not to be outside longer than 30 minutes, the soil removal was "just a little Band-Aid on the big problem."
When the wind blows, it picks up the dirt from the mine site and carries it on to Nez's land. Signs warn children not to play in certain areas, "but when we leave, you know how kids are, they want to play," he says.
He often wonders how the Navajo president, New Mexico's governor or President Bush would react if they had a waste pile in their backyard and how quickly it would be cleaned up.
"See how they would feel," he says.
He remains skeptical that the EPA can clean up the Northeast Church Rock Mine in five years.
"Anytime they come up with a plan like that, I think it's based on assumption," he said. "They don't have the real data to do any of the cleanup."
David Taylor, senior attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice's Natural Resources Unit, said that while EPA has been the best and most responsive of the federal agencies in dealing with uranium contamination issues, he questions whether EPA and other agencies have the money to implement the plan.
"All of the plans are a good first step, but the glaring weakness is that there is no commitment to seek additional resources, monetary resources on behalf of the federal agency," he said.
Clancy Tenley, EPA associate director for tribal programs in San Francisco, said the work in the plan is within the existing budget and the agency expects to get sufficient appropriations in future budgets.
He said the cleanup could take hundreds of millions of dollars, though not all of that would be federal money. In April, EPA sent letters to viable companies who owned or operated multiple mines in an effort to get those companies to pay for some of the cleanup.
Tenley said the federal agencies combined have spent about $155 million over the last decade to address the contamination with an overall goal of dealing with the most urgent risks first people living in contaminated houses and drinking contaminated water.
"By the end of the five years, we hope to have addressed the most urgent risks and to have a much better understanding of the scope of the problem," he said.