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Monument Valley • An old story tells how the first Navajos made a choice that shaped their destiny.
They embraced yellow corn pollen over yellow uranium. And they concluded unearthing the radioactive rock would unleash evil from the underworld.
But in the rush to fuel atomic weapons and nuclear reactors, Navajo lands yielded tons of the yellow rock, and the heavy machinery that dug it up left behind a hazardous legacy.
Here, below the Skyline Mine, about a mile from the famous Goulding's Trading Post, the Navajos' worst fears about uranium came true. Tumors and cancer and a host of other maladies plagued families living on the valley floor in Skyline's shadow. So did a nagging fear.
In some people's minds, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup this summer signaled the federal government has at long last started owning up to its obligations to the Navajos. Next week dump trucks and dozers will be done stuffing the evil back into the redrock.
And the unseen demons will be vanquished from the mythic landscape.
Mary Holiday is happy the uranium has been returned to Oljato Mesa, out of sight from the cluster of family homes below Skyline.
"It's better," she said, her daughter Daisy translating from Navajo, "that it's been taken back where it came from instead of putting it back in another place where it is a danger."
"It's an amazing project" • That's also the view of Elsie Mae Begay, a hitchhiking great-grandmother who has led the Navajos' fight for awareness about uranium's dangerous legacy and who lives in a trailer near her aunt Holiday's house on the family settlement.
"I think it's safe to live there," said Begay, who lost one son to a brain tumor at 24 and another son to lung cancer at age 40.
Both matriarchs treat the cleanup as a return to the natural balance. They raised their nine children on the valley floor below the telltale gray streak that marks Skyline's entrances. The piles of high-radiation tailings waste and mine debris were their children's and grandchildren's playground.
For years at a time after the mine closed in 1962, their families took turns living in a traditional hogan that had uranium in the masonry and the floor. They did not realize what the EPA told them a decade ago, that gamma radiation in the hogan was 80 times higher than considered safe for human exposure.
An EPA emergency team razed the traditional home in 2001. But two high-radiation piles nearby remained until this spring, when the EPA started removing them. The heap closest to the homes had the highest concentrations of radium-226, a decay product of uranium that releases large amounts of cancer-causing radon.
The $7.5 million Skyline cleanup is part of EPA's effort to address uranium problems all over the reservation. About $22 million is slated for addressing water contamination. A total of $60 million is planned for five years to identify and deal with contaminated homes and mine sites.
The Skyline cleanup is the first of four that EPA has planned so far, said Clancy Tenley, who oversees the uranium legacy program for the agency. He calls the successful end to the Skyline Mine cleanup a milestone.
"It's an amazing project in the technical complexity," he said, "and in the partnership with the people."
A few weeks ago, Tenley announced the next cleanup on the reservation: a $44 million project to address contamination at the largest uranium mine on the Navajo Reservation, Northeast Church Rock, New Mexico. And, unlike the Skyline cleanup that taxpayers paid for, this one will be on the tab of the company that mined it, a subsidiary of General Electric Co.
"It's going to disappear on its own" • At Skyline, the ancient uranium story has become a tool for helping locals understand the cleanup, said Jason Musante, who oversaw the effort. The uranium, said Musante, "is from here, and it should go back in the ground where it came from."
Musante reminded the locals of the old story. Now he's become part of it, a modern-day version of the embodiment of one of the monster-slaying Hero Twins of Navajo myth. After he spent nearly half the year filling "a giant Tupperware in the ground" with uranium-tainted dirt, the comparison has stuck.
His crews scooped about 20,000 cubic yards from the valley floor, loaded it into a container that looks like the massive bucket of a dump truck and hauled it with a motorized pulley to the mesa top. It took 5,000 trips.
They also used the pulley to scrape tailings from the rocky ledges just below the mine shafts.
Then they buried all of the contaminated material more than 25,000 cubic yards in total into the "Tupperware," which is really a carefully engineered landfill carved out of the mesa rock, waterproofed and topped with a high-tech plastic lid.
Crews used up to 50,000 gallons of water a day to keep down the desert dust on the roads at cleanup spots and in other work areas. To get up and down the mesa each day, they navigated a scary-steep dirt road that they widened by blasting away the rock. Work each day cost $25,000 to $30,000.
The landfill itself will be blanketed with five feet of rock and dirt before it is seeded and left to blend into the mesalike background. "It's going to disappear on its own," said Musante.
He tells the Navajos who live nearby that the radiation at the old hot spots is no different than anywhere out in the desert and a fraction of the levels at his Los Angeles home.
"We will meet our goal, for sure," he said, speaking of the reduced health hazard.
Musante, who hopes to work someday on another Navajo cleanup, said he learned that building a good relationship with the Navajos was just as important as burying the contaminated dirt. He relied on Navajo interpreter Joanna Manygoats to make vital ties, he said.
"She was able to go past what I said and explain the concepts well," recalled Musante, noting that a sentence he might speak at a Navajo community meeting sometimes became her five-minute-long explanations. "It helps you connect, especially with the elders."
A court-certified interpreter who grasps what's at stake for the people she helps, Manygoats notes there is no simple translation for the English words such as radiation or contamination risk.
"It's a big responsibility," she said. "You have to seek out the true meaning, the true issues of what people are feeling."
"They should have left it [the uranium] alone" • Tamping the last scoopful of dirt on the mesa-top landfill means the first battle is done, and the EPA's monster slayers can begin the fight anew some other place on the reservation.
And, while Jonathan Nez is thankful the Oljato skyline is "now that much more amazing," his appreciation is tempered. Nez is a member of the Navajo Tribal Council who represents the Monument Valley residents.
"Although the area is now more safe and ecologically reclaimed," he said in an email, "this cleanup should have been conducted years ago and with the utmost consideration for the inhabitants and their valuable livestock."
He thanked the EPA for the cleanup but added: "It is unfortunate that I cannot extend this same appreciation on behalf of the entire Navajo Nation and other Chapters, where radioactive contamination continues to harm the land, people and animals."
Lorenzo Begay, one of Elsie's sons, is glad his family's efforts to bring attention to the uranium problem have been successful. He narrated the 2000 film "The Return of Navajo Boy," which told about his family's long friendship with Monument Valley trading post owner Harry Goulding, their deep ties to uranium mining and the search for a lost uncle.
"I had no idea it would take this long," he said of the public-awareness campaign. "They are waking up and seeing we've got to do something about it."
For Ferguson Haycock, 25, and his brother Fonzy, 22, the end of the cleanup is especially welcome. Since June, they've often awakened to the rattle and rumble of the machinery outside their windows and endured the noise all day. They even had to relocate for a while to avoid breathing tainted dust while the crews worked in their backyard.
"The noise made me think I was still living in Salt Lake," said Ferguson, a 2009 West High School graduate who worked construction at the City Creek mall project and in Cottonwood Canyon.
When they were kids, the Haycocks and their cousins would sled down the tailings piles and climb among the old mine cables and ditched machinery. That was before they understood the radiation danger. Now the home is rid of the uranium monster.
"They should have left it [the uranium] alone," Fonzy concluded. "It brought so much threat. But now they are putting it back where it belongs."
Skyline cleanup video
O The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with professional filmmakers at Groundswell Educational Films, have a video showing the pulley system used at Skyline and reactions of Monument Valley residents to the cleanup. You can see it here: http://youtu.be/_ig7Kw7oisU
Some Navajo Uranium cleanup statistics
This is the fourth year of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's five-year program for dealing with the uranium legacy on the Navajo Reservation, where mine operators extracted more than 4 million tons of uranium between 1944 and 1986.
The agency has sampled 235 unregulated water sources and found 27 with uranium contamination.
Nearly 200 structures have been screened for radiation, resulting in the demolition of 27 buildings and the excavation of 10 residential yards.