Leetso: A Toxic Legacy

Leetso: A Toxic Legacy

For almost ten years, her very first ones, Melissa Bergen lived near a uranium processing mill. It was just across the street, in the outskirts of Tuba City, AZ. Now she is the mother of nine children and stays with her family in a recently-built area of the town on the Western edge of the Navajo Nation. Only about ten years ago, when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, Melissa learned that the facility she used to see across the street in her childhood was handling something dangerous. At the hospital they mentioned that her mom could have got sick because of the radiation. Luckily she is fine now. She was diagnosed in time.

A substantial portion of the 175,000 people inhabiting the Navajo Nation live near abandoned uranium mines and mine waste. Even if they have been inactive for decades, over 500 sites still contaminate the water and the lands of the biggest reservation in the U.S.. In the town of Cameron alone, a one hour drive from Tuba City, a hundred open pits still await to be cleaned up. One of the most radioactive is on the top of a mesa overlooking the Little Colorado River where it flows under the Tanner’s Crossing Bridge and Route 89. One of the mesa’s slopes is home to a group of related families. Some are descendants of the first prospector in this area, Charles Huskon, who gave his name to many of the pits he found around Cameron throughout the 1950s. By 1963 companies stopped digging and left. The mines and their debris, instead, mostly remain where they were. Fences and signs now signal some mines as well as contaminated water sources. But leetso, as Navajo people call the uranium, still lies where it is not supposed to stay.

Studies have highlighted the effects of occupational exposure on early Navajo uranium miners. But only recently researchers have begun to investigate the long-term impact of uranium contamination on current and future generations living in the reservation. A group of environmental public health scientists at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque has done health studies on three exposed generations. Melissa Bergen and her youngest children are among the participants of a research project that focuses on pregnant women and their babies, and have now been monitored for nearly five years.

With a colleague environmental journalist I intend to spend TK weeks in Albuquerque and TK days in Tuba City to follow the work of these researchers and their interactions with a few families who participate in the study in different corners of the Navajo Nation. Through their family histories and daily lives we want to document how uranium mining and the resultant contamination have affected generations of Navajos and their relationship with their lands. Between March and April 2019, we went six days in the area of Cameron and Tuba City. These are a selection of the pictures I took during that trip. The grant you are offering would help us continue the work we started and give the opportunity to stay in closer contact with the researchers and the affected communities.

TEXT: Guia Baggi


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