American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Uranium Mining

When Native Americans in the western United States were assigned reservations in the late nineteenth century, many were sent to land thought nearly worthless for mining or agriculture. The year 1871, when treaty making stopped, was a time before sophisticated irrigation and before dryland farming techniques had been developed. Industrialization was only beginning to transform the cities of the eastern seaboard, and the demand for oil, gas, and even coal was trivial by present-day standards. In 1871, Madame Curie had not yet isolated radium. Before 1900, there was little interest in locating or mining uranium, which later became the driving energy force of the nuclear age.

In a century and a quarter, the circumstances of industrialization and technological change have made a good deal of these treaty-guaranteed lands very valuable, not least because under their often barren surface lies a significant share of North America's remaining fossil fuel and uranium resources. Nationwide, the Indians' greatest mineral wealth is probably in uranium. According to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Report of October 1975, approximately the time when the government and private industry became especially interested in such things, an estimated 16 percent of the U.S. uranium reserves that were recoverable at market prices were on reservation lands; this was about two-thirds of the uranium on land under the legal jurisdiction of the U.S. government. There were almost four hundred uranium leases on these lands by the mid-1970s, according to the FTC, and between 1 million and 2 million tons of uranium ore a year—about 20 percent of the national total—was being mined on reservation land.

Moreover, if the uranium reserves on reservation land are added to those estimated on land guaranteed to Indian nations by treaty, the Indians' share of uranium reserves within the United States rises to nearly 60 percent; the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) places the figure at 75 percent to 80 percent. About two-thirds of the 150 million acres guaranteed to Indians by treaty have been alienated from them—by allotment, by other means of sale, or by seizure without compensation. Some of these areas, notably the Black Hills of South Dakota, underwent a uranium mining boom during the 1970s, even though legal title to the land is still clouded. Sioux leaders have refused to settle with the United States for the land, despite a price tag that currently exceeds $600 million, including principal and interest.

Uranium Mining in Navajoland

About half the recoverable uranium in the United States lies within New Mexico—and about half of that is beneath the Navajo Nation. As in South Dakota, many Navajos have come to oppose the mining, joining forces with non-Indians who regard nuclear power plants and arms proliferation as a twofold menace.

Uranium has been mined on Navajo land since the late 1940s; the Indians dug the ore that started the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons. For thirty years after the first atomic explosions in New Mexico, uranium was mined much like any other mineral. More than 99 percent of the product of the mines was waste, cast aside as tailings near mine sites after the uranium had been extracted. One of the mesa-like waste piles grew to be a mile long and seventy feet high. On windy days, dust from the tailings blew into local communities, filling the air and settling on the water supplies. The Atomic Energy Commission assured worried local residents that the dust was harmless.

In February 1978, however, the Department of Energy released a Nuclear Waste Management Task Force report stating that people living near the tailings ran twice the risk of lung cancer as the general population. The Navajo Times carried reports of a Public Health Service study asserting that one in six uranium miners had died, or would die prematurely, of lung cancer. For some, the news came too late. Esther Keeswood, from Shiprock, New Mexico, a reservation city near tailings piles, and a member of the Coalition for Navajo Liberation (CNL), said in 1978 that the CNL had documented the deaths of at least fifty residents (including uranium miners) from lung cancer and related diseases.

The Kerr-McGee Company, the first corporation to mine uranium on Navajo Nation lands (beginning in 1948), found the reservation location extremely lucrative. There were no taxes at the time, no health, safety, or pollution regulations, and few other jobs for the many Navajos recently home from service in World War II. Labor was cheap. The first uranium miners in the area, almost all of them Navajos, remember being sent into shallow tunnels within minutes after blasting. They loaded the radioactive ore into wheelbarrows and emerged from the mines spitting black mucus from the dust and coughing so hard it gave many of them headaches, according to Tom Barry, energy writer for the Navajo Times, who interviewed the miners. Such mining practices exposed the Navajos who worked for Kerr-McGee to between 100 and 1,000 times the limit later considered safe for exposure to radon gas. Officials for the Public Health Service have estimated these levels of exposure; no one was monitoring the Navajo miners' health in the late 1940s.

Thirty years after mining began, an increasing number of deaths from lung cancer made evident the fact that Kerr-McGee had held miners' lives as cheaply as their labor. As Navajo miners continued to die, children who played in water that had flowed over or through abandoned mines and tailings piles came home with burning sores.

Even if the tailings were to be buried—a staggering task—radioactive pollution could leak into the surrounding water table. A 1976 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report found radioactive contamination of the drinking water on the Navajo reservation in the Grants, New Mexico, area, near a uranium mining and milling facility. Doris Bunting of Citizens Against Nuclear Threats, a predominantly white group that joined with CNL and the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) to oppose uranium mining, supplied data indicating that radium-bearing sediments had spread into the Colorado River basin, from which water is drawn for much of the Southwest. Through the opposition to uranium mining in the area, among Indians and non-Indians alike, runs a deep concern for the long-term poisoning of land, air, and water by low-level radiation. It has produced demands from Indian and non-Native groups for a moratorium on all uranium mining, exploration, and milling until the issues of untreated radioactive tailings and other waste disposal problems are faced and solved.

By late 1978, more than 700,000 acres of Indian land were under lease for uranium exploration and development in an area centering on Shiprock and Crownpoint, both on the Navajo Nation. Atlantic Richfield, Continental Oil, Exxon, Humble Oil, Homestake, Kerr-McGee, Mobil Oil, Pioneer Nuclear, and United Nuclear were among the companies exploring for, planning to mine, or already extracting ore. During the 1980s the mining frenzy subsided somewhat, as recession and a slowing of the nuclear arms race reduced demand. Some ore was still being mined, but most of it lay in the ground, waiting for the next upward spike in the market.

Since 1950, when a Navajo sheepherder named Paddy Martinez brought a strange-looking yellow rock into Grants, New Mexico, from nearby Haystack Butte, the area boomed with uranium mining. Grants styled itself the "Uranium Capital of the World," as new pickup trucks appeared on the streets and mobile-home parks grew around town, filling with non-Indian workers. For several years before the boom abruptly ended in the early 1980s, many workers in the uranium industry made $60,000 or more a year.

As a result of mining for uranium and other materials, however, the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that the water table at Crownpoint would drop 1,000 feet and that it would return to present levels thirty to fifty years after the mining ceased. Much of what water remained could be polluted by uranium residue, the report indicated. Local residents rose in anger, only to find that they owned only the surface rights; the mineral rights in the area are owned by private companies.

The Largest Nuclear Accident in the United States

The biggest expulsion of radioactive material in the United States occurred July 16, 1979, at 5 a.m. on the Navajo Nation, less than twelve hours after President Jimmy Carter had proposed plans to use more nuclear power and fossil fuels. On that morning, more than 1,100 tons of uranium mining wastes— tailings—gushed through a packed-mud dam near Church Rock, New Mexico. With the tailings, 100 million gallons of radioactive water gushed through the dam before the crack was repaired.

By 8 a.m., radioactivity was monitored in Gallup, New Mexico, nearly fifty miles away. The contaminated river, the Rio Puerco, showed 7,000 times the allowable standard of radioactivity for drinking water below the broken dam shortly after the breach was repaired, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The few newspaper stories about the spill outside of the immediate area noted that the area was sparsely populated and that the spill posed no immediate health hazard.

The area is high desert, however, and the Rio Puerco is a major source of water. Workers used pails and shovels to clear the contaminated ground because heavy machinery could not negotiate the steep terrain around the river. The cleanup was limited and frustrating. Where were cleanup crews going to put 1,100 tons of radioactive mud, when the next substantial rain would leach it back into the river course?

More problems began to appear. A waste pile at the United Nuclear mill that had produced the wastes that gushed down the Rio Puerco in 1979 detected leaking radioactive thorium into local groundwater. On May 23, 1983, the state of New Mexico issued a cease-and-desist order to United Nuclear to halt the radioactive leakage. The company refused to act, stating that its leak did not violate state regulations. Allendale and Appalachian, two insurance companies that were liable for about $35 million in payment to United Nuclear because of losses related to the accident, sued the company on the belief that it knew the dam that burst was defective before the spill. The dam was only two years old at the time of the accident.

Death in the Mines

For thirty years after the first atomic explosions in New Mexico, uranium was mined much like any other mineral. "We used to play in [the mining dust]," said Terry Yazzie of an enormous tailings pile behind his house. "We would dig holes and bury ourselves in it" (Eichstaedt, 1995, 140). The neighbors of this particular tailings pile were not told it was dangerous until 1990, twenty-two years after the mill that produced the tailings pile closed, and twelve years after Congress authorized the cleanup of uranium mill tailings in Navajo country. Abandoned mines also were used as shelter by livestock, which inhaled radon and drank contaminated water. Local people milked the animals and ate their contaminated meat.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, Navajo uranium miners hauled radioactive ore out of the earth as if it were coal. Some of the miners ate their lunches in the mine and slaked their thirst with radioactive water. Some of their hogans were built of radioactive earth. Many sheep watered in small ponds that formed at the mouths of abandoned uranium mines that were called "dog holes" because of their small size. On dry, windy days, the gritty dust from uranium waste tailings piles covered everything in sight. The Navajo language has no word for "radioactivity," and no one told the miners that, within a few decades, many of them would die.

In their rush to profit from uranium mining, very few companies provided ventilation in the early years. Some miners worked as many as twenty hours a day, entering their "dog holes" just after blasting of local sandstone had filled the mines with silica dust. The dust produced silicosis in the miners' lungs, in addition to lung cancer and other problems associated with exposure to radioactivity. As early as 1950, government workers were monitoring radiation levels in the mines that were as much as 750 times the limits deemed acceptable at that time, according to Peter Eichstaedt's account in If You Poison Us: Uranium and American Indians (1995). By 1970, nearly 200 of the miners had already died of uranium-related causes. Roughly one in four of the miners had died, most of them from lung cancer, in an area where the disease had been nearly unknown before uranium mining began.

Some miners were put to work packing thousand-pound barrels of "yellowcake," ore rich in uranium. These workers carried radioactive dust home on their clothes. Some of the miners ingested so much of the dust that it was "making the workers radioactive from the inside out" (Eichstaedt, 1995, 62). Downwind of uranium processing mills, the dust from yellowcake sometimes was so thick that it stained the landscape a half-mile away.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
Eichstaedt, Peter. 1995. If You Poison Us: Uranium and American Indians. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1994. Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.

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