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Who are the families affected by the Cove uranium mines?

A look at the memories and cancer that affect the community of Cove
Evelyn Joe of Cove, Arizona, stands with photos of her father, John Joe Jr., at her home on March 23. Joe’s father worked in one of the Cove mines as a dynamite transporter. He died in 2022 from pneumonia at the age of 96. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)

Evelyn Joe still remembers the smell of uranium at the mines where her father, John Joe Jr., worked as a dynamite transporter. She was 4 years old.

“I didn't really see him, but he always talked about it,” she said. “He talked about how they had a little store at one of the mines.”

On March 5, the Environmental Protection Agency added five sites to the Superfund National Priorities List. The Lukachukai Mountains Mining District in Cove, Arizona, was one of those sites.

“The NPL is a list of known sites throughout the United States and its territories where historic releases of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants pose significant threats to human health and the environment,” an EPA news release said.

The sites are considered the nation’s most serious uncontrolled or abandoned releases of contamination, according to the EPA.

Senior EPA officials visit Cove Chapter House in Cove, Arizona, on March 15 to discuss the Superfund site list. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)

At the Cove Chapter House on March 15, EPA officials and Navajo Nation leadership met to speak further on the designation.

Cove Chapter President James Benally referred to the designation as historic while EPA officials spoke about partnering with the Navajo Nation to carry out the cleanup.

“We have a community that has pleaded and has begged for a cleanup that meets their needs,” said Amber Crotty, Navajo Nation Council delegate. “They’ve gone through decades of alternatives, of remediation, and not all of that has been successful.”

Residents have a different narrative that continues to spill into Cove. The Tri-City Record spoke to members of the community at that March meeting and in the following weeks to hear those stories.

Cove, Arizona, was designated as one of the five sites added to the national priorities list on March 5. It was designated as a territory that poses significant threat to the environment and human health, according to an EPA news release. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)
A contaminated community

Cove sits on the west end of the Lukachakai Mountains west of Red Valley. The soil is red, and the sage brush is abundant as residents maintain a way of life while a mountain of memories sits in the background of their community, reminding them of the environmental and emotional damage left with their families.

Joe, who has lived in Cove all her life, raises sheep at her home alongside her brother.

The family has a sheep camp that was utilized when it had a stream with running water. Now dry, it has little value.

Joe’s father passed in 2022 from pneumonia at age 96.

When asked about the March meeting, Joe said the community has seen EPA officials going to the sites of the mines.

“So it's not nothing new to me, we see EPA go up – they're always up there walking, driving,” she said. “It's been ongoing, like 10 years or something.”

Evelyn Joe stands with her dog on her family land in Cove, Arizona, while releasing her sheep from their corral on March 23. Several families still raise livestock in the community but have very little access to water for farming. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)

Joe said she can only hope the government meant what she heard at the meeting and will get work done at the mine sites.

Roland Yazzie, son of James and Julia Yazzie, said he remembers his father having difficulty breathing after working in one of the tunnel mines.

“He used to take us up there on the mountains,” he said. “The mines, that’s where the sheep drank, and we also drank from that mine too.”

Yazzie pointed to the couple of sheep inside a small corral and the empty crop land next to them.

“There used to be a water canal going through here through that reservoir,” he said. “My mom, dad and other elders used to farm corn, squash and watermelon.”

Then in 2014, the community was told to discontinue the use of that water because of contamination.

Roland Yazzie of Cove, Arizona, said at one point this dry canal had running water used for farming, livestock and other necessities. It is now dry. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)

Yazzie referred to the water that has dried up, and they have no access to wells for livestock, farming or other lifestyle needs.

“We don’t plant nothing because there’s no water,” he said.

Later on in life, Yazzie took to bus driving and teaching at the community school despite having health issues. His father died in 1980.

Delbert Johnson sat to the side of the chapter house walls on March 15 listening to the Navajo Nation and EPA officials.

After the meeting, Johnson said he felt excited but afraid about what’s to come for the community.

He worries that the soil might be disturbed during the cleanup.

Now residing in Kirtland, New Mexico, Johnson said he was born in a hogan in Cove.

His experience with the mines is close to home. Johnson’s father, Delbert Johnson, died after a long-term battle with cancer in 1968.

Now, Johnson said he raises livestock and hopes to be a part of that new economic growth after the cleanup.

Ancestors and elders once used the land around Cove, Arizona, to plant crops such as melon, squash and corn. Now, the land is dry with no clean or uncontaminated water, said Roland Yazzie. Some residents still plant oats using runoff from snowmelt, he said. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)

Sonya Young-Panigeo has lived in Cove since 1994 and has kids enrolled with Cove Day School.

She lost her paternal grandfather to health complications in 1973.

The day school was closed because of water contamination, and her children hope to return to the community after the cleanup.

Another mother of three children, Tia Randall, is pushing for the cleanup sooner rather than later because of the closure of the day school.

Randall said she was devastated when the school, initially closed temporarily, was shut down indefinitely.

Now in portable classrooms, Randall’s children have reported unfair treatment and a feeling of isolation.

Her paternal grandfather struggles with health complications since his involvement with the mines.

During the March 15 meeting, Randall’s youngest sat on the table while Navajo Nation officials referenced her infant and the uncontaminated future they hope to see her grow up in.

Raymond Nez of Cove, Arizona, stands in his home next to a picture of family members. Kenneth, Paul and John Nez, who all worked in the mines, died four years ago. Nez spoke predominantly in Navajo but expressed his familiarity with the mines in the mountains. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)
Now what?

On March 22, the Navajo Nation Dependents of Uranium Workers Committee hosted the Southwest Uranium Gathering at the Farmington Civic Center.

The NNDUWC works to extend the Senate Bill 3853, known as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. It would allow for those impacted by uranium mining to file claims for compensation.

David Tsosie takes the podium at the Southwest Uranium Gathering on March 22 at the Farmington Civic Center. The meeting was hosted by the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims and Down Wind Victims Committee. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)

Hugh Stephens, attorney with Stephens & Stephens LLP of Buffalo, New York, has been working with the group through RECA to provide compensation to former uranium miners.

The Tri-City Record spoke with Stephens about the difficulty around uranium trials that are filed as personal-injury claims.

“Those are not the greatest cases,” he said.

When looking at uranium cases, Stephens said uranium contamination can’t easily be determined to be the cause of the cancer.

In speaking with the families, Tri-City Record found there was no real diagnosis, outside of scientific circles, for the victims of cancer or health complications, in English or Navajo.

Rather, their descendants used descriptions of their symptoms to explain the pain and suffering they endured after their work in the mines.

Those descriptions typically involved the lungs and the time spent at the sites. A commonality in families was the loss of elders to a disease that was unprecedented in their language and land.

“You’re going to pay $100,000 to hire an expert, and they’re going to get another expert, and you’re going to end up with two experts – one who says it caused it and one who says it didn’t,” he said.

Whereas a personal-injury case involving mesothelioma – a tumor in tissue that lines the lungs and other organs – can help win a case, it typically stems from asbestos exposure, he said.

There must be a level of statistical significance to win a uranium case, Stephens said.

It’s also difficult to hold companies responsible.

In the Cove mining district, the absence of a large and liable company meant that the Superfund would take responsibility for the cleanup.

“That’s the real story: There’s no one to sue, there’s no compensation to be had,” Stephens said.

At the gathering, former miners and their families listened to key players in the fight to extend RECA assistance.

Mayor Nate Duckett speaks at the Southwest Uranium Gathering on March 22 at the Farmington Civic Center. “When government damages people and families, government should pay,” he said. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)

Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett spoke in support of the issue.

“When government damages people and families, government should pay,” he said.

Ute Mountain Ute councilman Conrad Jacket also spoke to the mill contamination on the satellite reservation in White Mesa, Utah. Energy Fuels Resources Inc. continues to operate on the land, running the nation’s only fully licensed and operating conventional uranium mill.

“We were Cold War patriots when you needed us. We went into the mines,” he said. “We're the ones that got the uranium, we’re the ones that made America secure and safe during that time.”

Jacket said he wants to see tribes and all those affected by the environmental contamination come together to fight for justice.

“There’s urgent effort today – the urgent message we’re sending to the state of New Mexico, the urgent message we’re sending to Congress – is that we can’t wait any longer,” said Joseph Hernandez, attending on behalf of New Mexico Rep. Anthony Allison, a Democrat from San Juan County.

At a NNDUWC meeting before the gathering, a member shared his experience with the miners who did not get their day of justice.

“People that they say with their last breath, ‘Keep going,’” he said.

From left, evangelist Boots Wagner, Kathleen Tsosie, Phillip Harrison Jr., and Ute Mountain Ute Councilman Conrad Jacket pray over a document at the Southwest Uranium Gathering on March 22 at the Farmington Civic Center. The meeting was hosted by the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims and Down Wind Victims Committee.