“I never knew the risk I put myself
in by working for the
uranium,” he said in his native Navajo language, as
translated by his daughter Seraphina. “I know I returned
home to my family contaminated with the uranium dust. I know
I brought it home to my children. There were times I brought
home rocks that were uranium, and I would put it on my
windowsill for my kids to see the work I was doing. But I
was unaware of the risk.“
Since then, Leonard and his wife Helen have lost seven
of their 11 children—all before they reached the age
Six died from Navajo Neuropathy, a
rare disease caused by exposure to radiation that
primarily affects Navajo children. The disease attacks
the peripheral nervous system. Symptoms include the
shriveling of hands and feet, muscular weakness,
stunted growth, infection and corneal ulcers. Forty
percent of children affected die before they reach
their 20s. The seventh child died from a miscarriage.
Many Navajo children were afflicted with the disease as a
result of exposure to high levels of uranium in the air and
water in and around their own homes.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, nearly 4
million tons of uranium ore was mined from Navajo land as
part of the United States’ effort to develop a nuclear bomb
during the Cold War.
When the miners left, uranium tailings
and contaminated water and air were left behind on tribal
land. Like the Nezes, many Navajos were unaware of the
health risks caused by exposure.
Helen, 71, and Leonard, 74, lost their
first child in 1968.
“(Dorenta) never walked; she had unusual
puffiness in her face, her cheeks,” Helen said through her
daughter Seraphina. “And she was very thin in her
extremities. Her abdominal area — her stomach — had
Dorenta was just 3 years old when she
John was born in 1967 and died in 1970;
Claudia was born in 1970 and died 1972; Euphemia was born in
1975 and died in 1978.
Years later, Cedar died at the age of 36,
followed by Theresa, who died at the age of 26 in 1996.
All died of Navajo Neuropathy.
“All of the symptoms were identical,”
Helen said. “Today, I still agonize and think about the
past. To have six children die of the same symptoms and not
know what it is. … One doctor in Albuquerque said, ‘Well, if
you live in some sort of contaminated area, that might be
the cause.’ ”
The Nezes’ home still sits half a mile
from the mouth of the abandoned uranium mine.
And the Navajo government officials say
the issue is not theirs to resolve.
“This is a federal government issue,”
said Patrick Sandoval, chief of staff at the office of the
Navajo president and vice president. “People can always do
more in every effort. The federal government should have
left uranium alone. It shouldn’t have been bothered. The
Navajo people didn’t know what was happening when (the
miners) came in. For our part, a bigger effort could be
done, but we are doing the best we can with what we have.”
Gary Garrison, public officer at the
Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the BIA is not responsible
“The Bureau of Indian Affairs is not
involved with providing outreach to the communities on this
particular issue, funds for cleanup, or health care to
residents of the Navajo Nation,” he said. “Those areas are
being handled by other tribal and federal agencies
responsible for carrying out those actions.”
As for federal government efforts,
programs to clean up the contaminated areas are in place.
The Environmental Protection Agency began
working to solve the problem of contaminated homes in Navajo
Nation in 1994 with the Superfund program, which has
provided $13 million to assess contaminated areas and
develop a plan of action. In 2007, the Superfund Program
finished a comprehensive atlas of each contaminated site and
the level of contamination.
Since then, four yards and one home in
Church Rock have been cleaned up at a cost of $2 million,
paid for by the U.S. government.
In 2007, the EPA initiated the Five-Year
Plan in conjunction with the BIA, the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission, Indian Health Services and the Department of
Energy. These groups also worked closely with the Navajo
The Five-Year Plan lays out a procedure
to assess the severity of the contamination and a plan of
action to address it. It was the first coordinated effort of
federal and local groups to deal with the problem. One of
the first initiatives was to require the owner of the Church
Rock mine to conduct a cleanup.
Regardless, these programs came too late
for the Nezes.
Helen remembers the uranium mining all
“I do recall the blasting,” she said. “I
recall the dust filling my dishes. We didn’t have laundry
close by. Sometimes I washed my children’s clothes with (my
husband’s) contaminated clothes.”
When their children first became sick,
Helen and Leonard visited doctor after doctor, searching for
Instead, they were faced with accusations
from local doctors.
“The indication was, ‘Is there incest?’ ”
Helen said. “ ‘Is your husband related to you? Is he your
brother, your uncle? Is that the reason your children have
these symptoms?’ They never apologize, only the speculation
Further complicating matters, Leonard’s
involvement with the mine was off the books. Miners were
paid in goods and food for their families. They never
received either paychecks or cash for their work. Now, there
is no record whatsoever of Leonard’s time in the uranium
“Working for the uranium, I was only
given a piece of white slip, a piece of paper, to take to
the local store to purchase food and other things,” Leonard
With no record of his work history, there
is little hope for the Nezes to gain compensation for the
loss of their children.
Chris Nez, 44, is one of Leonard's
surviving children. He is angered at the way the Navajo
Nation is treated by the federal government
“My heart is broken and I blame the government,”
Leonard said. “I think back now, if I didn’t expose my
children to the uranium, I could have had a big
family. Now I am surviving only four children. This is
my biggest regret, to work for the uranium.”
“This has been going on for quite
some time,” he said. “One thing that really bothers me
is we say ‘our land,’ but technically it’s not our
land, this so-called Navajo Reservation. We do not own
anything on it at all. Not even the land. All we got
is probably three inches of topsoil. If there’s any
oil, if there’s any kind of water, it belongs to the
government. And yet, they contaminated the whole area.
And now they’re just playing hush-hush.”
The legacy of Navajo Neuropathy
spans generations in the Nez family. Helen’s
great-grandson died in June of the same disease that
claimed six of his aunts and uncles.