Lucy Knorr says her father's death was related to his work at the mine.
The E.P.A. filed a report on the rancher's find early last year and pledged to continue its environmental review. But there are still no warning signs or fencing around the secluded and decaying site. Crushed beer cans and spent shell casings dot the ground, revealing that the old mine has become a sort of toxic playground.
"If this level of radioactivity were found in a middle-class suburb, the response would be immediate and aggressive," said Doug Brugge, a public health professor at Tufts University medical school and an expert on uranium. "The site is remote, but there are obviously people spending time on it. Don't they deserve some concern?" Navajo advocates, scientists and politicians are asking the same question.
The discovery came in the midst of the largest federal effort to date to clean up uranium mines on the vast Indian reservation. A hearing in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led to a multiagency effort to assess and clean up hundreds of structures on the reservation through a five-year plan that ends this year.
Yet while some mines have been "surgically scraped" of contamination and are impressive showpieces for the E.P.A., others, like the Cameron site, are still contaminated. Officials at the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy attribute the delay to the complexity of prioritizing mine sites. Some say it is also about politics and money.
"The government can't afford it; that's a big reason why it hasn't stepped in and done more," said Bob Darr, a public relations specialist for the environmental consulting firm S.M. Stoller, which does contracting work for the Department of Energy. "The contamination problem is vast."
If the government can track down a responsible party, he said, it could require it to pay for remediation. But most of the mining companies that operated on the reservation have long since gone out of business, Mr. Darr said.
To date, the E.P.A., the Department of Energy and other agencies have evaluated 683 mine sites on the land and have selected 34 structures and 12 residential yards for remediation. The E.P.A. alone has spent $60 million on assessment and cleanup.
Cleaning up all the mines would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Clancy Tenley, a senior E.P.A. official who oversees the uranium legacy program for the agency in the Southwest.
Larry Gordy discovered the mine on his land in 2010, but it has not been cleaned up yet.
Some say the effort has been marred by bureaucratic squabbles and a tendency to duck responsibility. "I'll be the first to admit that the D.O.E. could work better with the E.P.A.," said David Shafer, an environmental manager at the energy agency.
Determining whether uranium is a result of past mining or is naturally occurring is "a real debate" and can delay addressing the problem, Mr. Shafer said. He cited seepage of uranium contaminants into the San Juan River, which runs along the boundary of the reservation, as an example. "We need to look at things like this collectively and not just say it's E.P.A.'s problem or D.O.E.'s problem," he said.
E.P.A. officials said their first priority was to address sites near people's homes. "In places where we see people living in close proximity to a mine and there are elevated readings, those are rising to the top of the list for urgent action," Mr. Tenley said.
Agency officials said they planned a more thorough review of the Cameron site — which still has no warning signs posted — within the next six months.
Meanwhile, Navajos continue to be exposed to high levels of radioactivity in the form of uranium and its decay products, like radon and radium. Those materials are known to cause health problems, including bone, liver, breast and lung cancer.
Lucy Knorr, 68, of Tuba City, Ariz., grew up near the VCA No. 2 mine operated by the Kerr-McGee Corporation, now defunct. Her father, a former miner, died of lung cancer at age 55 in 1980, and her family received a payout of $100,000 under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a law that was enacted after her mother hired a lawyer and testified before Congress.
The program has awarded $1.5 billion for 23,408 approved claims since it was enacted in 1990.
Ms. Knorr's father was one of hundreds of Navajos who did not wear protective gear while working in the mine. "He'd wash at a basin outside" after leaving the mine, she said, "and the water would just turn yellow."
The government has been successful in tracking down and holding some former mining companies accountable. The E.P.A. is requiring that General Electric spend $44 million to clean up its Northeast Church Rock Mine, near Gallup, N. M. Chevron is paying to clean up the Mariano Lake Mine, also in New Mexico.
At a mine in Cameron, Ariz., the radioactivity levels exceeded Geiger counters' scales.
When the government cannot locate a responsible party, which is most often the case, the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy work with the tribal authorities to reach cleanup decisions. In general, the E.P.A. handles mines, while the Energy Department is responsible for the mills where the ore was processed and enriched....
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The New York Times
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