CHURCH ROCK – 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.

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