Radioactive Hazard Hits Home for Navajos
Members of an emergency environmental cleanup team in Monument Valley are checked for radiation after demolishing the radioactive contaminated hogan in the background. (Andrew Sowder)

MONUMENT VALLEY -- The appearance of men in white "spacesuits" one day last April made the surreal red rock landscape here look like a scene from a sci-fi thriller.

The men, contractors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, used a backhoe to demolish an old hogan in southeastern Utah's Monument Valley where Mary Holiday had raised her family. They wore the strange suits to protect against radiation from the uranium ore that was used to build the traditional Navajo home 40 years ago.

Environmental officials have suspected for years that there are many more of these dangerously "hot" hogans on the vast Navajo Reservation. But lacking the mandate and the money to study how radiation has affected the people and their homes, they still do not know for sure.

"If this were a house in the suburbs of Boston, this would have been a scandal," said Doug Brugge, a professor of community health at Tufts University Medical School. "People would have been outraged." For the Navajo people, unanswered questions remain a fact of life. Even with the debris gone from the desert hamlet where Holiday's hogan once stood, Elsie Mae Begay, worries about the radiation.

Holiday's hogan was built in the late 1950s or early '60s and she and members of her family inhabited it for more than a decade. Begay, who is Holiday's niece and has assumed the squeaky-wheel role for the extended family, lived in it for three years with some of her eight children.

Her youngest son has chest pains. Her youngest daughter has arthritis and anemia. And nearly everyone has head- aches, even the grandchildren, Begay says. She uses inhalers for lung problems. One son, Lewis, died at age 24. And her son, Lorenzo, who also lives in the hamlet, learned two months ago he might have lung cancer.

"I don't really know what caused it," says Lorenzo, 39, a father of two who never smoked or worked in the mines. "I'm too young to get something like that."

His mother shakes her head. "A lot of people don't know what's going on," she says.

Many Navajos wonder why the U.S. government has not done more to help find answers.

After all, it was Navajo land that supplied most of the nation's vanadium and uranium, essential raw materials for atomic weapons, and later produced uranium to fuel nuclear power plants. And it was thousands of Navajo miners who shoveled the ore from the ground and processed it into usable form. For atomic industry workers, the federal government offers aid through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. But there is no comprehensive health and safety program for those who simply live on the reservation.

The Navajo Nation has been cobbling together information about uranium hazards on the reservation for more than 20 years. It has found about 1,150 abandoned uranium mines and given them priority according to how dangerous they are and how many people live nearby. The tribe has capped many. Contaminated animal shelters have been razed and the sites reclaimed. Less is known about traditional sweat lodges, hogans and newer homes that may have been constructed with radiation-rich materials.

It used to be that no one thought twice about putting tailings dust in stucco or cutting blocks from easily shaped uranium ore. Why would they, when miners and millers worked all day in the stuff, usually without protective gear and often without ventilation, and the work was for the government? The mines peppered the reservation, which sprawls across an area roughly the size of West Virginia in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

"It's a huge, complex problem," says one Navajo environmental official.

Lives Tied to Uranium: Like thousands of other Navajos, the lives of Begay and her family are inexorably tied to uranium. Not only did they mine and mill, or live with miners and millers, they also drank water that contained mine runoff, breathed powdery tailings in desert winds and lived amid its contaminated byproducts.

The cluster of buildings where Holiday, her family and the Begays live sits on the northwestern edge of Monument Valley, below the Oljato Mesa. About a football field away from their hamlet, a pale gray streak from runoff has bleached the red rock just below the Skyline Mine.

The beguiling red buttes of Monument Valley, backdrops for the movies of Western legend John Wayne and director John Ford, were home, ranch and playground for Holiday and Begay when they were growing up. Like the late Happy and Willie Cly, who were Holiday's parents and Begay's grandparents, their faces became "Every Indian" depicted in the films, postcards and guidebooks featuring the world-famous tourist spot.

Recently, the family was featured in a documentary, "Return of Navaho Boy," which weaves stories about uranium, cowboy-and-Indian Westerns and the Cly clan's reunion with an orphaned brother. Begay insists her family and neighbors never knew of the danger layered in the sandstone.

"I didn't know this would harm us," said Begay, whose ex-husband would return home from a day in the uranium mines covered in white and yellow dust.

Damage Unknown: Brugge, the Tufts professor, says it is too soon to say exactly how dangerous the family's radiation exposure has been. It would depend on what kind of radioactive material individuals were exposed to; how much time they spent in the high-radiation areas; whether they breathed it, ate it, drank it or absorbed penetrating gamma radiation; whether they had a child's fast-growing cells or a senior's long accumulation of radiation. Without that knowledge, it would be wrong to assume everyone will someday get lung cancer, genetic damage or other ailments associated with radiation, says Brugge, who grew up on the reservation as the son of an anthropologist.

"The complete risk is not assessed at this point."

At the same time, the uranium hogans do warrant immediate and thorough attention, he says. "What people are concerned about is highly plausible." The EPA began scrutinizing the radiation risk on the reservation in 1997, after Congress expanded an old coal mine reclamation law to include abandoned uranium mines.

By examining maps of the uranium mines, the federal environmental officials pinpointed spots on the reservation that were likely to be contaminated. Specially equipped helicopters enabled them to take surface readings of radiation and plot high-radiation areas in red. Then they went back to the hot spots to test water and, whenever invited, to test hogans. By January 2000, they learned that 29 of the 227 water sources tested had levels of uranium higher than expected. Of the 27 hogans tested, two had levels high enough to concern the EPA's emergency response office, better known as Superfund. One "hot" hogan in New Mexico set off alarms.

Holiday's home did, too.

The hogan floor had penetrating gamma radiation up to 25 times higher than the level that triggers emergency action by the EPA. Radon levels also were high -- as much as 44 times higher than the EPA standard for homes. Sean Hogan, who oversees the EPA's Region 9 Superfund program, calls the radiation levels in the Holiday hogan "alarming."

He says it was a relief the hogan had been used only for storage in recent years. Still, the agency made arrangements to raze it. "That family is by no means unique," says Theresa Coons, an epidemiologist who is working with the EPA, the Navajo EPA and others to develop a holistic approach to the reservation's radiation problem. The health and safety teams are providing medical screening and have put together workshops for tribal members to educate them about radiation and the risks they face, such as screening their homes for radon.

Still, there are unanswered questions. How many homes are dangerous? How many water sources are threatened by mine leaching? What mine-waste piles pose a risk? Which problems must be tackled first? Hogan, the EPA administrator, says answers will take time.

"With that little data, it's too hard to say how bad it is," he says. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Begay tries to figure out whether he has the health insurance to cover medical bills for lung cancer. He plans trips to the doctor, 100 miles away, and wonders whether he can scrape together a few hundred dollars to hire a medicine man to perform a healing ceremony for his hacking cough and fatigue.

And his mother prays for her family every day at dawn, when the gods are said to be most attentive.