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The US EPA Puts Up a Radiation Fence in Elsie's Backyard

Published: May 10, 2010
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After a decade of investigations, the EPA has finally put up a fence to warn people about the hazardous waste in Elsie Mae Begay’s backyard. The area around the abandoned Skyline uranium mine is one of only a few sites on Navajo Nation which has received this attention, despite there being as many as 1,000 former mines on the reservation.

This latest development occurred almost ten years after EPA consultant Andrew Sowder acknowledged to Groundswell in an interview that putting up fencing “is the least they could do” after demolishing Elsie’s uranium-contaminated house.

Last week EPA contractor Brian Milton told Mary Helen Begay, Elsie’s daughter in law, that the steps officials were taking were only temporary, but intended to protect the area until a more comprehensive cleanup could be done. Groundswell trained and equipped Mary Helen to use the flip video camera that the above video was shot with.

Contractors sprayed a special coating on radioactive cables, debris and waste piles to prevent contaminated topsoil from being blown away in the wind, as it has since 1944 when the mine was abandoned. “It basically takes the top inch or so of the soil and puts a crust on it, kind of like a pie crust,” Milton told Begay. He said it normally only lasts a year or so before it becomes ineffective. “It’s just really a temporary measure to fix the top of the soil and prevent erosion and stuff.”

Still a question is where the EPA will relocate the waste to permanently. The cheaper alternative which has been suggested by some officials would be to store it in a repository on-site. Many Navajos however are staunchly opposed to on-site storage due to the health impacts and environmental legacy that uranium mining has caused over the last six decades.

Elsie and Groundswell went to Washington DC in fall 2008 to screen “The Return of Navajo Boy” on Capitol Hill. Ironically, the EPA’s five-year cleanup plan does not include the radioactive waste in her backyard. As a result of Elsie’s determination, and Groundswell’s engagement with policy makers, Elsie and her backyard are now included in the 5 year plan to clean up cold war uranium contamination in Navajo Lands. But questions remain: where will EPA put the radioactive waste?

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