The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is increasingly becoming a central focus in the 2016 presidential election, especially now that Democratic candidates are preparing for a debate there next month, but maybe the candidates should be debating somewhere in the Navajo Nation instead. This week, Native Americans have been pointing out that they’ve faced even worse water contamination for years and received far less media attention.
In August 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally spilled millions of gallons of toxic mine waste into the local watershed, turning the Animas River a mustard yellow, polluting a vital water source for thousands of Native Americans in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, according to the New York Times. But the Gold King Mine Spill, as it has come to be known, was just one acute instance of a chronic problem for Native Americans.
Forty percent of families on the Navajo Reservation, the largest Native American Reservation in the U.S., lack running water at home, which means some 54,000 people must truck water from distant sources, according to CBS News. Part of the problem is poor infrastructure, but the solution isn’t as simple as digging new wells. "You'd probably start to hit water here at about 600 feet, but the water you'd get out would be laced with uranium," George McGraw, who runs a water charity called DigDeep, told CBS.
The Cold War nuclear arms race caused uranium mining to surge in the U.S., and thousands of prospectors dug cliff-side tunnels across the American West between the 1940s and 1980s that can still be seen today. These mines were mostly created under the General Mining Law of 1872 that didn’t require that mines undergo any sort of cleanup. In fact, a report from the Department of Energy found that only 15 percent of uranium mines underwent any reclamation or remediation work. These mines leach into the groundwater and poison wells that were once safe.
Uranium occurs naturally in radioactive rocks that can be processed and used to sustain nuclear fission to fuel power reactors or bombs, according to AZCentral. Uranium ore emits alpha particle radiation that is relatively harmless unless it’s ingested, generally in contaminated water, or inhaled as dust. But some mine sites also emit gamma radiation that can penetrate skin and can be hazardous without ingestion.
Chronic exposure to alpha or gamma radiation is known to be bad, but too little research has been done to know just how bad it is on the Navajo Reservation. "I sometimes shake my head and wonder how we've gotten this far without having more answers," Dr. Charles Wiggins, director of the New Mexico Tumor Registry, told AZCentral. "We don't really have a lot of solid studies that document the effects of exposure."
According to the activist group Clean Up the Mines, 75 percent of abandoned uranium mines are on federal and tribal lands, mostly in Western states. Today, more than 15,000 abandoned uranium mines dot the U.S. West. On the Navajo Reservation alone, more than 1,200 abandoned mines have been documented.
For its part, the water charity DigDeep is trying to improve water access for the Navajo people, but the fact that they’re on the reservation at all is a testament to how bad the Navajo situation is. DigDeep mostly works in developing countries in Africa, but its executive director says the challenges facing the Navajo are as complex as anywhere else. "We took this project to hydrogeologists, to engineers, to construction specialists all over the country, even here in the Southwest," McGraw told CBS. "And everyone said, 'Well, this is one of the most challenging projects we've ever seen.'"