The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency will assess 500 structures at around 100 a year as part of a federal Five-Year Plan to tackle uranium contamination on Navajo lands.

Total spending on demolition and rebuilding uranium-contaminated structures may be up to $3 million a year, it is understood.

The agency said: “Although the legacy of uranium mining is widespread and will take many years to address completely, the collaborative effort of EPA, other federal agencies and the Navajo Nation will bring an unprecedented level of support and protection for the people at risk from these sites.

“Much work remains to be done, and EPA is committed to working with the Navajo Nation to remove the most immediate contamination risks and to find permanent solutions to the remaining contamination on Navajo lands.”

The Navajo Nation lands include 27,000 square miles spanning the three states of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

Rich in uranium, almost 4 million tonnes of the radioactive ore was mined from the lands between 1944 and 1986 with the development of atomic power and the Cold War weapons stockpiling.

Many Navajo worked in the mines and mills and lived nearby.

They eventually closed but left a legacy of uranium contamination.

This includes more than 500 abandoned uranium mines along with homes and drinking water sources with raised radiation levels.

The EPA fears homes, sheds and other buildings may have been contaminated by radioactive material in soils and dust carried in on clothing and shoes.

Potential health effects include lung cancer from radioactive particle inhalation, bone cancer and kidney malfunction from contaminated water.

The agency estimates around 30 percent of the Navajo population may be using unregulated water sources with uranium contamination.

Together with the Navajo Nation EPA, it has launched a campaign to warn residents of the dangers of drinking contaminated water.

Meanwhile, an EPA Superfund programme has been operating since 1994 to assess and clean up potentially contaminated sites with total funding so far of $13 million.

A superfund programme is one established to tackle hazardous waste sites and allows the EPA to force responsible parties to clean up sites or reimburse the agency for the work.

It has already assessed 117 structures and demolished 27 along with ten residential yards building new homes and giving compensation to some families to carry out their own rebuilding.

The Five-Year Plan, which expires in 2012, will also see assessments made of the abandoned mines along with clean ups where necessary.

David Gibbs

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