This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The National Transportation Safety Board doesn't send crews to swarm over the remains of an airplane crash out of idle, or morbid, curiosity. It picks up every shard of metal and scrutinizes every second of recorded flight data, not only to figure out what, when, why and how, but to gather knowledge that can be used to help prevent the same accident from happening again.
This should also be the case as the Environmental Protection Agency moves along with the multi-million dollar cleanup of the Navajo settlements near the old Skyline uranium mine of Utah's Monument Valley. It should be much more than a simple, if expensive, rehab project. And it can be if the EPA, and everyone else who cares about the preservation of public lands and public health, will treat the whole matter as a learning experience.
As outlined in a recent Salt Lake Tribune article, action was needed because dust, soil and other materials from the mine that yielded some 4 million tons of uranium ore between 1944 and 1986 has so clearly contaminated the settlement lying below the Oljato Mesa.
There are alarmingly high rates of cancer and other ailments, even among those residents who do not smoke and who never worked in the mine. The EPA has budgeted at least $82 million for the clean-up, mostly to replace the area's water system, and also to destroy and rebuild homes that are now so contaminated as to be uninhabitable.
That's good. It is the least the nation can do to repay the area's residents for the sacrifice they, unwittingly, made for the development, first of America's atomic weapons program, then of its drive for nuclear energy. It is a process that should also be useful in designing the next round of environmental protection standards and protocols, one that might make all the suffering felt, and all the money now spent, at Oljato unnecessary at the next such project.
As the demands for energy grow across the West, there will doubtless be more uranium mines, more debris and tailings to dispose of, even as other projects such as the dreamed-of liberation of so-called tar sands and traditional old-energy oil and gas searches also despoil the land.
In the '40s, we now tell ourselves, we didn't know how dangerous this stuff was, how we could have protected ourselves and our offspring from it, how we could have avoided poisoning entire towns for thousands of years just to extract a few years' worth of energy.
That doesn't mean we can't go looking for uranium or any other viable energy source. It just means that, when figuring out what is viable, we add in the costs as well as the benefits.