Sunday, July 26, 2009

Uranium Contamination Haunts Navajo Country

TEEC NOS POS, Ariz. — It was one year ago that the environmental scientist showed up at Fred Slowman’s door, deep in the heart of Navajo country, and warned that it was unsafe for him to stay there.

“There were a lot of things people weren’t told about the plight of Navajos and uranium mining,” Stephen B. Etsitty said.
The Slowman home, the same one-level cinderblock structure his family had lived in for nearly a half-century, was contaminated with potentially dangerous levels of uranium from the days of the cold war, when hundreds of uranium mines dotted the vast tribal land known as the Navajo Nation. The scientist advised Mr. Slowman, his wife and their two sons to move out until their home could be rebuilt.

“I was angry,” Mr. Slowman said. “I guess it was here all this time, and we never knew.”

The legacy wrought from decades of uranium mining is long and painful here on the expansive reservation. Over the years, Navajo miners extracted some four million tons of uranium ore from the ground, much of it used by the United States government to make weapons.

Many miners died from radiation-related illnesses, and some, unaware of harmful health effects, hauled contaminated rocks and tailings from local mines and mills to build homes for their families.

Now, those homes are being demolished and rebuilt under a new government program that seeks to identify what are very likely dozens of uranium-contaminated structures still standing on Navajo land and to temporarily relocate people living in them until the homes can be torn down and rebuilt.

Stephen B. Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, and other tribal officials have been grappling for years with the environmental fallout from uranium mining.

“There were a lot of things people weren’t told about the plight of Navajos and uranium mining,” Mr. Etsitty said. “These legacy issues are impacting generations. At some point people are saying, ‘It’s got to end.’ ”

After a Congressional hearing in 2007, a cross-section of federal agencies committed to addressing the environmental and health impacts of uranium mining on the reservation. As part of that commitment, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation began working together to assess uranium levels in 500 structures through a five-year plan set to end in 2012.

Using old lists of potentially contaminated structures, federal and Navajo scientists have fanned out to rural reaches of the 27,000 square mile reservation — which includes swaths of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — to measure levels of radium, a decay product of uranium that can cause lung cancer. Of 113 structures assessed so far, 27 contained radiation levels that were above normal.

“In these situations, you have contamination in somebody’s yard or in their house,” said Harry Allen, the E.P.A.’s section chief for emergency response in San Francisco who is helping lead the government’s efforts. “To us, that is somewhat urgent.”

Many structures that showed high levels of radiation were vacant; some families had already moved out after hearing stories of contamination in their homes. But eight homes still had people living in them, and the E.P.A. and Navajo officials have worked to convince residents that it would be unsafe to stay.

“People had been told they were living in contaminated structures, but nobody ever did anything about it,” said Will Duncan, an environmental scientist who has been the E.P.A.’s main representative on the reservation. “They would tell us, ‘We don’t believe you are going to follow through.’ ”

But with a budget of nearly $8 million, the E.P.A. has demolished all 27 contaminated structures and has begun building ones to replace those that had been occupied. Typically, the agency pays a Navajo contracting company to construct a log cabin or a traditional hogan in the structure’s stead, depending on the wishes of the occupants. Mr. Allen said the cost, including temporarily relocating residents, ran approximately $260,000 per dwelling and took about eight months.

The agency also offers $50,000 to those who choose not to have an old home rebuilt.

Lillie Lane, a public information officer with the Navajo Nation E.P.A. who has acted as a liaison between the federal government and tribal members, said the program held practical and symbolic importance given the history of uranium mining here.

Ms. Lane also described the difficulty of watching families, particularly elders, leaving homes they had lived in for years. She told of coming upon two old miners who died before their contaminated homes could be rebuilt.

“In Navajo, a home is considered sacred,” Ms. Lane said. “But if the foundation or the rocks are not safe, we have to do this work.”

Some families, Ms. Lane said, complained that their children were suffering from health problems and had wondered if radiation were to blame.

The E.P.A. has started sifting through records and interviewing family members to figure out whether mining companies that once operated on the reservation are liable for any damages, Mr. Allen said.

On a recent summer day, Fred and Clara Slowman proudly surveyed their new home, a one-level log cabin that sits in the quiet shadows of Black Rock Point, miles away from the bustle of Farmington, N.M., where the family has been living in a hotel.

Mr. Slowman said he suspected that waste materials from a nearby abandoned mine somehow seeped into his house. The family plans on having a traditional Navajo medicine man bless their dwelling before they move in next month.

“In our traditional way, a house is like your mom,” Mr. Slowman said. “It’s where you eat, sleep, where you’re taken care of.

“And when you come back from the city, you come back to your mom. It makes you feel real good.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

Appeals Court Demands Accounting for Indian Trusts

Published: July 24, 2009
Filed at 12:21 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the Interior Department must account for century-old land royalties owed to American Indians, reversing a lower court's ruling that the task is impossible.

A 2008 decision by U.S. District Judge James Robertson said Interior had unreasonably delayed an accounting but added that the complicated task was ultimately impossible. He later ruled the Indian plaintiffs are entitled to $455 million, a fraction of the $47 billion or more they have said they are owed.

The appeals court said Friday that that court erred in freeing the government from the accounting burden. Chief Judge David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said the decision essentially allowed the Interior Department ''to throw up its hands and stop the accounting.''

''Without an accounting, it is impossible to know who is owed what,'' Sentelle wrote. ''The best any trust beneficiary could hope for would be a government check in an arbitrary amount.''

The long-running suit, first filed 13 years ago, claims the Indians were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887 for things like oil, gas, grazing and timber.

The three-judge panel acknowledged that the task is a complicated one and said the Interior Department should focus on the ''low-hanging fruit'' and not muddy the process by spending time and money to account for closed accounts or those in probate, for example.

''We must not allow the theoretically perfect to render impossible the achievable good,'' Sentelle wrote.

Indian plaintiffs, led by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Montana, have argued that the government has for a long time improperly accounted for the money and should pay it back with some form of interest.

The government appeal contended that the court does not have the jurisdiction to award money at all, pointing to the ruling that the accounting was ultimately impossible. They also pointed to Robertson's comments that Congress has not given the Interior Department enough money to do a full accounting.

In 1994, Congress demanded that the department fulfill an obligation to account for money received and distributed. Two years later, when account statements still had not been reconciled, Cobell joined with others in suing.

Because many of the records have been lost, it has since been up to the court to decide how to best estimate how much individual should be paid, or how the money should be accounted for. Many of them are nearing the end of their lives.

Robertson originally intended to begin a new phase of the trial that would determine how and to whom the government should award the money. But he allowed the two parties to take the case immediately to the appeals court so the process would not be delayed further.

The class-action suit deals with individual Indians' lands and covers about 500,000 Indians and their heirs. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Op-Ed Contributor - Evil Spirits

Evil Spirits

Published: July 15, 2009
Sioux Falls, S.D.

SINCE taking office, President Obama has overturned several of George W. Bush’s executive orders. I would like to recommend he also overturn one of Theodore Roosevelt’s.

Fourteen years after the Great Sioux Reservation was established in western South Dakota in 1868, President Chester Arthur issued an executive order creating a 50-square-mile buffer zone on its southern edge, in Nebraska. This was meant to prevent renegade whites from selling guns, knives and alcohol to Indians living on the reservation.

The buffer zone was ratified as law when Congress divided the Great Sioux Reservation into smaller units in 1889. But when Roosevelt became president, the liquor industry convinced him that the buffer zone should be abolished, which he did through an executive order in 1904. This move was, however, illegitimate from the start, because an act of Congress cannot legally be reversed by an executive order.

Today, the tiny Nebraska hamlet of Whiteclay has four liquor stores, ostensibly to serve its population of 24, but really more for the bootleggers and alcoholics living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the border. The result has been murders, spouse beatings, child abuse, thefts and other undesirable consequences of the free flow of alcohol into the reservation.

In 2000, I asked the Clinton administration to overturn Roosevelt’s illegal order, but was unable to get anyone’s attention. In 2001, I asked Vice President Dick Cheney to do the same, but he referred the matter to the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who decided that bringing back the buffer zone would, as he wrote me in a letter, take land away from white landowners. In fact, overturning the Roosevelt order would not transfer any land titles, but would merely give jurisdiction over the buffer zone to the Oglala Sioux tribe, automatically making alcohol sales illegal.

President Obama could right a century of wrongs by re-establishing the buffer zone. It would alleviate the overwhelming social ills that result from easy access to alcohol, and help end the violence tribal members too often visit on each other and on their families.

James Abourezk, a former Democratic senator from South Dakota, was the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs from 1977 to 1979.

Monday, July 13, 2009

This Land - A Rising but Doubted Dream on a Reservation

Published: July 12, 2009

John Hunt, a tribal member, works for the contractor developing the site of the health center, which will be three times as large as the one it will replace, left.
At the edge of the remote prairie town called Eagle Butte, just past a fireworks stand, there is construction. Where winter wheat once grew, workers in hard hats now pour the foundations that will cement buildings to dusty earth.

Perhaps somewhere else this might be just another construction site. But here on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation, in what may be the poorest county in the country, people sometimes stand at the edge and watch, as if to convince themselves of at least this promise being kept.

They come to witness the rising of a health center triple the size of the one it will replace: a tired building whose very bricks, mortared in place long ago by the Army Corps of Engineers, recall displacement and loss. The site will also include dozens of houses to accommodate all the nurses and doctors the reservation expects — or hopes — will come.

“This right here is your entryway,” a tribal member named John Hunt says with pride, pointing to some churned-up soil. And here, the expanded dental clinic. And here, the traditional healing room, where those mourning a death will be able to burn sage in a ritual of assisting passage to the next life.

Mr. Hunt’s thick body is built to take a fall; he spent years as a rodeo cowboy, saddling broncos, before giving it up to work first for the tribal government and then for the contractor developing the site. He understands what this construction represents:

Better health care. More jobs. The culmination of years of determined advocacy by tribal leaders. And the concrete manifestation of that abstract concept known as federal stimulus money, coming from the even more abstract American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Even now, with the water tower built and the basement dug, some people here are so accustomed to disappointment that they don’t have much trust in the project. “A lot of disbelief,” says Mr. Hunt, 37. “A lot of — ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ ”

If a place can be reduced to topographical and statistical details, then this is the Cheyenne River Reservation: a 2.9-million-acre swath of plains and prairie, nearly treeless and beautiful in its starkness; home to about 15,000 people, most of them tribal members, and most of them poor.

The tribe has endured many indignities over the centuries, including one still fresh in the collective memory. In the 1940s and 1950s, the federal government built the Oahe Dam as one way to harness the powerful Missouri River. In doing so, it inundated more than 100,000 acres of fertile tribal land, washing out a way of life and forcing many families to be moved 60 miles west, to here: an arid railroad outpost soon to lose its railroad.

The Corps of Engineers built a health center to serve this grassy sprawl of distant towns and often-rutted roads, but as the only one of any size on the reservation, the center could not keep up with the growing population. The tribe began working on a plan for a better, larger operation that would also make it eligible for more money to improve services.

It clearly had the need, with higher rates of births and deaths, including infant deaths, than the region’s non-Indian population. The birthing unit had been closed because of quality-of-care concerns, the bathrooms could not accommodate wheelchairs, and recruiting efforts often died as soon as, say, a nurse from out of town saw the drab efficiency apartments set aside for the staff.

And there was the familiar matter of location, location. When tribal members require anything more than modest medical attention, they must be taken by ambulance or plane to hospitals far from the reservation — in Rapid City, S.D., or maybe Bismarck, N.D., both about 180 miles away.

A few years ago, Mr. Hunt fell off a ladder while holding a nail gun and accidentally shot a nail into his knee. His injury earned him a three-hour ambulance ride to a Rapid City hospital.

Some people gradually developed a distrust of the health center, and not only because its brick facade recalled the time of forced relocation. It was understaffed, it had become a patchwork of renovations and additions, and there was nothing native about the place beyond the staff. “It has no flow,” Mr. Hunt said.

Finally, in 2002, the Indian Health Service, the federal agency responsible for providing health care to American Indians and Alaska Natives, approved the proposal for an “alternative rural hospital,” with more attractive housing. Architects were soon traveling around the reservation to hear what people wanted, meeting in the bingo halls and community rooms of remote places like Bear Creek and White Horse and Thunder Butte. They especially listened to the elders.

“This was not going to be just a brick building,” Mr. Hunt said.

Now there was just the small matter of finding the money to pay for it all. So tribal leaders hit the road. For years.

They divided themselves into teams and took turns visiting the Indian Health Service’s headquarters in Rockville, Md., and paying calls to members of Congress in Washington, where they were helped by their senators, Tim Johnson and John Thune. They testified at any hearing anywhere that concerned the health care of Native Americans.

Along the way, they met tribal leaders from other reservations who were seeking the same financing for the same problem: the woeful inadequacy of the health care promised to American Indians long ago. “We all have the same disparities,” said Sharon Lee, the tribal vice chairwoman.

The tribal leaders made their case effectively, but in Indian Country, progress comes in phases, when money is available. The Indian Health Service works with 562 federally recognized tribes, a great many of them in need, so the project on that old wheat field in Eagle Butte took shape in fits and starts.

Then, two months ago, there came one of those news releases that seem to belch out incessantly from Washington, often incremental, often self-congratulatory. But this one said the Indian Health Service had allocated $500 million in stimulus funds for Indian health care, including $227 million for two “shovel ready” projects: a hospital in Nome, Alaska, and a health center in a place called Eagle Butte, S.D.

This $111 million health center will have an American Indian feel; it will be theirs, and not someone else’s. It will have a larger emergency room, two beds set aside for births, new medical equipment, and such basic, almost-forgotten amenities as a staff break room. It will also have that healing room, specially ventilated; no longer will mourners have to clog the bottoms of doors with towels when they burn sage.

But again, this is Indian Country. There are some basic health services the center will not provide; a CT scanner, for example.

Thomas Sweeney, an Indian Health Service spokesman, said the decision not to include this equipment was based on a formula that takes into account several factors: staffing, workload and population size. The agency receives slightly more than half the financing it needs, he said, which means “there’s always tough decisions.”

One step at a time, said Mr. Hunt: the building first, and then more visits to Washington to fight for more improvements — a CT scanner among them.

Until then, it remains a three-hour ambulance ride to Rapid City.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Woods to Play Exhibition to Help Begay Charity

BETHESDA, Md. (AP) -- Tiger Woods is helping out longtime friend Notah Begay III, agreeing to play in his charity Skins Game at Turning Stone Resort next month to support Native American youth.

Begay declined to comment and kept his head down when asked if Woods was playing in his event, then stopped 20 yards later and said with a smile, ''I need to win some skins.''

Woods' agent at IMG confirmed he would be playing Aug. 24 in the Notah Begay III Foundation Challenge. The world's No. 1 player will join Stanford teammate Begay, former Masters champion Mike Weir and Camilo Villegas.

A year ago, the event raised $180,000 for Begay's foundation, which supports youth sports and wellness programs for Native Americans in New Mexico and other states.

Begay, a Navajo, is the only Native American on the PGA Tour. He has four PGA Tour victories, none since 2000, and earned his card for this year by returning to Q-school.

He and Woods have remained closed, however, and Begay received an exemption to the AT&T National, where he opened with rounds of 70-72 at Congressional.

Woods had planned to play in Begay's event a year ago until he was forced to miss the second half of the season with knee surgery.

Turning Stone Resort in upstate New York has held a Fall Series event on the PGA Tour the last two years, and its $6 million purse is larger than some regular-season events.

Woods is not expected to play in the PGA Tour event, as it follows the conclusion of the FedEx Cup. Begay's charity event is the Monday of The Barclays in New Jersey, the start of the PGA Tour Playoffs for the FedEx Cup. Woods has never played The Barclays since it became part of the playoffs.
Mark Steinberg, his agent at IMG, said Woods has not decided on his schedule for the playoffs.