Two years ago, a Navajo cattle rancher found an old uranium mine on his grazing land in Arizona. Even after the rancher notified federal officials, who discovered that levels of radioactivity were still high, the mine near the town of Cameron is still not closed off. Meanwhile cattle still roam through the area, eat grass that is possibly tainted by uranium and in turn is auctioned off with the result that the meat is in the U.S. food supply.
Rancher Larry Gordy contacted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after stumbling upon the mine in 2010. He said EPA officials arrived with Geiger counters that confirmed high radioactive counts. But the cattle still graze in Cameron and are then sold at auction. Gordy’s experience is typical of other ranchers throughout the American southwest, whose cattle live off of land also rich in minerals that supplied the U.S. Cold War-era nuclear weapons programs for decades. But uranium mining ceased in Cameron, an hour’s drive east of the Grand Canyon, 25 years ago. With the end of the mining operations came the end of government studies monitoring the local environment, too.
Inconsistent government regulations covering food safety in the beef industry are part of the problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rigorously tests milk because of concern over children’s safety. But USDA beef screening rules only test for bacteria like E. coli and metal pieces that might end up in batches of ground beef. Toxic chemicals like uranium are not on the list. Only if an animal is suspected of illness or is culled through a random spot check would it be checked for any sort of chemical contamination.
Navajo advocacy groups, including Forgotten People, have long complained about possible uranium contamination and its effect on their communities for years. Locals are frustrated that that various government agencies, including the EPA, USDA and Department of Energy, have failed to work together to clean up the abandoned mines that mark the southwest. Not only cattle, but people, are drinking contaminated water and breathing in contaminants like radon.