Navajo Uranium Mining
The Navajo people, like many others, have suffered a great deal at the hands of the United States government. In the 1860s the Navajo people were forced from their homes and made to endure what is known as the “Long Walk”, in which they had to travel to Fort Sumter, New Mexico. This act of Indian removal was one of the most inhumane removals done in our history. For years the Navajo endured horrible conditions. They were forced to become farmers which was something they had never done. They were unable to provide for themselves because the land they were given to cultivate was in such poor condition it was nearly impossible to farm. Eventually the United States government realized this was a mistake and allowed the Navajo to return to their home land. Though this “Long Walk” was horrible, unfortunately this was not the worst act done to the Navajo, nearly a hundred years later the mining of uranium on Navajo land caused far more destruction than the” Long Walk” ever did.
With the end World War II and the Cold War just, the worth and need for uranium greatly increased. The United States sought out uranium deposits within the continental United States under the order of the US Atomic Energy Commission (ACE). In 1948 the ACE said it would purchase all uranium ore mined in the United States. This order by the ACE is what initiated the so called “mining boom” for uranium. (Brugge, Globe, 2002) During this time it was known that vast uranium deposits were in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, consequently on Navajo land. Most of the mining companies were operated by private companies and the United States government was interested in purchasing the uranium. So the United States government made it possible for anyone to open a mine on Navajo land but only a Navajo person could apply for a permit. In general, companies would find an English-speaking Navajo and pay them off to apply for a permit. However, the people who lived on the land that was granted to these companies did not always speak English and were displaced with no way to provide for their families unless they worked in the mines themselves. (Robbins, 1967)
This mining on Navajo land began in 1948 and began to slow down around 1967, Leaving roughly 1000 abandon mining shafts on the Navajo reservation. There were 4 main locations of uranium mines and mills on Navajo land: Shiprock, New Mexico, Church Rock , New Mexico, Monument Valley, Utah, and the last at Kayenta, Arizona. Most of these mining operations were worked primarily by Navajo men as miners. Initially this was considered a good thing due to the large number of jobs that had become available to the Navajo. However, they had no idea of the health issues that came along with mining Uranium. (Brugge, Globe, 2002)
The Navajo people jumped at the idea of finally having stable jobs that linked them to the American economy and lead them to abandon raising livestock. Unfortunately the Navajo miners were paid less than minimum wage, pay stubs from 1949 showed that the miners made approximately 90 cents an hour. (Brugge, Globe, 2002) The miners worked various jobs such as blasters, muckers, transporters, and millers. Many first-hand reports from the miners stated that the foremen of the mines were generally white and almost never had to enter the dangerous mines themselves. (Brugge, Globe, 2002) It was also reported by many of the Navajo miners that they were not educated on the hazards of uranium mining nor given the proper protective equipment needed to work safely in these types of mines. Even worse, the main mode of transportation of uranium on the reservation was by wagon and at times by foot by the Navajo themselves exposing them to the deadly radiation and toxins released from uranium.
The dangerous effects of uranium had been known by the United States and Europeans long before they began mining it on Navajo land. Unfortunately, the Navajo had little to no knowledge of the dangers of radiation and uranium. This was due to geographic isolation, language barriers, and literacy levels. (Brugge, Globe, 2002) Even though the United States government had known of the hazards and that the Navajo were not aware of these hazards, they neglected to inform them of the dangers the mines presented and set no regulations on the corporations who ran these mines. The most troubling thing about all this is that a treaty in 1868 between the Navajo and the United States stated that the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs would oversee all economic, education, and health services of the Navajo people. It’s puzzling to think that the United States was bound by a treaty to oversee the health of the people, but they neglected to provide appropriate protection and knowledge about uranium.
Uranium is known for having various major health effects caused by exposure. These health effects can be radiological or chemical in nature. Uranium can affect people and animals in various ways such as inhalation, ingestion of things such as food and water, and wound contamination. Inhalation and ingestion of contaminated substances by uranium greatly increases the chances of ailments such as kidney damage, lung cancer, and even leukemia. (Blesie et all, 2003) Before the 1950s cancer was virtually non-existent among the Navajo people. However, after the 30 plus years of uranium mining, cancer has run rampant within the Navajo population. It was shown, in the 1980s, that the rate of lung cancer in Navajo miners was 56 times higher than the national average. Such a sharp increase is in no way just a simple coincidence. The unsafe conditions these miners worked in no doubt played a large role in the increased rate of cancer. (Robbins et al, 2008)
Unsafe and inhumane working conditions was not the only injustice enacted on these people, the environmental footprint left on the Navajo land was and still is overwhelming. When mining minerals, a thing called “trailing” is produced. Trailing’s are things like rubble and dirt that are a consequence of all forms of mining. However, when mining uranium this “trailing” has a very destructive side effect. In general, all the trailing’s from uranium mining have trace elements of radioactive uranium in them. During the mining on Navajo land the companies wanted to save money on the removal of this excess rubble by using it to build various types of buildings. To the Navajo people this seemed like a good idea considering most of them lived in homes with dirt floors but again they had no knowledge of the damaging uranium in the rubble used to make the bricks for their buildings. In 1968 the United States government sent public health services to inspect the buildings built with these contaminated materials. What they found was more than shocking, they found that the buildings emitted 100 times more radiation than what was deemed safe. This rubble was used to build Navajo buildings and white housing alike. This lead the government to do a mass clean up and destruction of the contaminated buildings. However, all this clean up and the money only went to rebuilding white homes and the Navajo were left with their contaminated building. (Brugge, Globe, 2002)
Other more serious contaminations of uranium mining plagued the environment of the Navajo land. The water on the Navajo reservation is considered to be some of the most contaminated in the United States. Most of the wells on Navajo land are unregulated and tests done from 2009 to 2015 showed that the public water system had elevated levels of uranium contamination. For decades the Navajo people drank this water because they had too, and nothing was done to try and fix the issues the mining had caused. The consumption of this water lead to bone cancer and liver failure. (Rock, 2017)
The Call for Change
With all the health and environmental damage caused by the very poorly regulated uranium mining on Navajo land it became very clear to the Navajo that the benefits of the mines were greatly outweighed by the seemingly endless and damaging effects. The greatly increased cancer rate of miners, environmental damage, and lack of royalty payments was largely ignored by the United States government and essentially swept under the rug. At the start of the 1960s lung cancer began to sweep the Navajo people, an illness that was non-existent in the history of the Navajo. It quickly became an epidemic and no one knew why. This wave of cancer sparked an interest in the negative effects of uranium among the Navajo people which lead to the call for compensation for the damage done and a need to bring this injustice to the eyes of the public. (Brugge, Globe, 2002)
What came next was multiple lawsuits that were filed against the mining companies that demanded compensation for the miners who worked these mines. A Navajo man named Harry Tome, who was a member of the tribal council was the man who would lead the charge against the mining companies. He spoke to many miners, widows, and even doctors to gain as much information of the issue he could. His goal was to try and push a bill through that would extend the benefits of black lung workers to those working in uranium mines. Tome used the media as a tool to get attention and after years of lobbying the bill was never passed. After this he sought the help of President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Interior, Stewart Udall. Stewart Udall filed lawsuits against the mining companies and the United States government for knowingly placing Navajo miners in a dangerous working condition and not informing them of the hazards of uranium. Udall fought to pass an act call the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act or RECA. The lawsuits filed against the mining companies were ultimately thrown out in 1980 because the companies claimed that the miners were covered by workers compensation and were not allowed to file lawsuits. Though many of the workers did file for compensation they largely were denied or just plain ignored by the companies. (Brugge, Globe, 2002)
With so many setbacks in the push to gain compensation for the Navajo people it seemed that the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act would never be passed. However, after years of work by the Navajo people and by Stewart Udall RECA was finally passed and gave a one hundred-million-dollar trust fund that required the United States government to pay up to hundred thousand dollars to miners who worked in the mines at any time between January1, 1947 and December 31, 1971. Furthermore, the widows and children of the miners who had died from exposer would get the compensation guaranteed by the RECA. Though it took decades for the United States to act it finally took a step towards fixing this incredible injustice.
Though the RECA was huge win for the Navajo people so much more was needed to be done in order to ensure the health and safety of the Navajo. At the time of the RECA being passed there were still dozens of open uranium mines spewing out radiation and contaminate water and soil. The environmental protection agency or EPA in 2007 stepped in and developed a five-year plan to address and help fix the uranium contamination in the Navajo land. This plans goals were to aid in the cleanup of contaminated structures, assess the contaminated water supplies and provide clean water, to assess the abandoned uranium mines and provide a plan to ensure a safe cleanup of the abandon mines. In 2014 the EPA drafted a second 5 year plan that was developed based on the information gained in the first 5 year plan. The goals of the second plan were to begin building housing not contaminated with radiation, to increase water infrastructure, clean up the abandoned mines, especially the North-East Church Rock mine, which was one of the most contaminated of the abandoned mines.
From 1944 to 1986 thirty million tons of uranium was extracted from Navajo land and left the people and the land in a state of ruin for decades even after the mining was stopped. The Navajo, in the eyes of the government and corporations, were seen as an easy target to be exploited due to their isolation and the language barriers. Even though the dangers of uranium mining were very well known the proper protections were never given to the Navajo. This injustice went unknown to the public for decades and forced the Navajo to live in a virtual waste land that caused so many to suffer from kidney failure, lung cancer, and many other health issues. It took many years and the determination of the Navajo to come together to finally begin reconciling the damage done. The former miners and their families have received the compensation and their plight has been recognized. Today all the former open mines are now closed, even though the radiation and water contamination are still present the EPA is still working tirelessly to ensure that the land is again livable, and the people are safe.
The history of the United States is riddled with stories of injustice such as the uranium legacy that plagued the Navajo people. Though it is hard to talk about such horrible atrocities the world commits, it is important that we learn from the mistakes made by others to ensure they never happen again.
Brugge, Doug, and Rob Goble. “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People.” American Journal of Public Health 92.9 (2002): 1410–1419. Print.
Robbins, Paul, John. Hintz, and Sarah A. Moore. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. 2nd ed. 2014. Critical Introductions to Geography. Web.
Bleise, Danesi, Burkart. “Properties, Use and Health Effects of Depleted Uranium (DU): A General Overview” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 64 93-112. Web
“Five-Year Plan to Address Impacts of Uranium Contamination.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 17 Nov. 2017, www.epa.gov/navajo-nation-uranium-cleanup/five-year-plan-address-impacts-uranium-contamination.
“Navajo Nation: Cleaning Up Abandoned Uranium Mines.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 11 Oct. 2017, www.epa.gov/navajo-nation-uranium-cleanup