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The following was published in Akwesasne Notes New Series, Spring -- April May June -- 1997, Volume 2 #2, pp. 10-12. and is reproduced here with permission of the author.
by Bruce E. Johansen
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. And, 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 technical change have made many 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 Report of October 1975, an estimated 16 percent of the United States' 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 United States Government. There were almost 400 uranium leases on these lands, according to the F.T.C., 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 places the figure at 75 percent to 80 percent. About two-thirds of the 150 million acres guaranteed to Indians by treaty has been alienated from them -- by allotment, 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 had grown to $351 million principal and interest by 1993.
About half the recoverable uranium within 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 Mining in Navajoland
Uranium has been mined on Navajo land since the late 1940s; the Indians dug the ore that started the United States' 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 70 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 that said that people living near the tailings ran twice the risk of lung cancer of 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, a member of the Coalition for Navajo Liberation from Shiprock, N.M., a reservation city near tailings piles, said in 1978 that the Coalition for Navajo Liberation 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 tailing 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 report found radioactive contamination of drinking water on the Navajo reservation in the Grants, N.M., area, near a uranium mining and milling facility. Doris Bunting of Citizens Against Nuclear Threats, a predominantly white group that joined with C.N.L. and the National Indian Youth Council 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 white 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.
The threat of death which haunted the Navajos came at what company public-relations specialists might have deemed an inappropriate time; the same rush for uranium that had filled the Black Hills with speculators was coming to the Southwest as arms stockpiling and the anticipated needs of nuclear power plants drove up demand, and the price, for the mineral. 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-McCiee, Mobil Oil, Pioneer Nuclear and United Nuclear were among the companies exploring, 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.
As a result of mining for uranium and other materials, the United States 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, and found themselves neatly ambushed by the white man's law. The Indians owned the surface rights; the mineral rights in the area are owned by private companies such as the Santa Fe Railroad. "If the water supply is depleted, then this [Crownpoint] will become a ghost town," said Joe Gmusea, a Navajo attorney. "The only people left will be the ones who come to work in the mines." John Redhouse, associate director of the Albuquerque-based National Indian Youth Council, said that the uranium boom is "an issue of spiritual and physical genocide." "We are not isolated in our struggle against uranium development," Redhouse said. "Many Indian people are now supporting the struggles of the Australian aborigines and the Black indigenous peoples of Namibia [South West Africa] against similar uranium developments. We have recognized that we are facing the same international beast."
Thanks to its location between the United States' media capital, New York City, and its political capital, Washington, D.C., as well as the coincident opening of the movie "The China Syndrome," Three Mile Island was America's best-publicized nuclear accident. It was not the largest such accident.
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 12 hours after President 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, N.M. 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, N.M., nearly 50 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 "poses no immediate health hazard."
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. The local newspaper displayed an atomic logo, and blamed the publicity that followed the spill on "Jane Fonda and the anti-nuclear weirdos [who] have scared the hell out of people . . ."
While no one in New York or Washington, D.C., had much to worry about, the Navajo and white residents of the Rio Puerco area did. The area is high desert, and the Rio Puerco is a major source of water. The Los Angeles Times sent a reporter, Sandra Blakeslee, to the area a month after the spill occurred. By that time, United Nuclear Corp., which owns the dam, had cleaned up only 50 of the 1,100 tons of spilled waste. Workers were using pails and shovels because heavy machinery could not negotiate the steep terrain around the Rio Puerco. The cleanup was limited and frustrating. Where were clean-up crews going to put 1,100 tons of radioactive mud, when the next substantial rain would leach it back into the river course?
Along the river, officials issued press releases telling people not to drink the water. They had a few problems; many of the Navajo residents could not read English, and had no electricity to power television sets and radios. Another consumer of the water -- cattle -- don't read. An unknown number of livestock died from consuming radioactive water.
John Bartlitt, of New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water, expressed perplexity over the lack of attention paid to the accident. About 80 percent of the radioactivity in uranium ore remains in the tailings, he said. "The radioactivity which remains in a pile of tailings after 600 years is greater than that remaining in [nuclear] power-plant water after 600 years," Bartlitt said.
After the Rio Puerco spill and the collapse of demand for uranium in the early 1980s, Grants, New Mexico dropped its nickname as "Uranium Capital of the World," and began promoting itself as a haven for retirees under the new slogan "Grants Enchants." A report from the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division said that while the spill had been "potentially hazardous . . . its short-term and long-term impacts on people and the environment were quite limited." While it issued these soothing words, the same report also recommended that ranchers in the area avoid watering their livestock in the Rio Puerco. The same report noted that the river water was not being used for human consumption and, "The extent to which radioactive and chemical constituents of these waters are incorporated in livestock tissue and passed on to humans is unknown and requires critical evaluation." The report also said that the accident's effect on groundwater should be studied more intensely. Several Navajos said that calves and lambs were being born without limbs, or with other severe birth defects. Other livestock developed sores, became ill, and died after drinking from the river. Tom Charley, a Navajo, told a public meeting at the Lupton Chapter House that "The old ladies are always to be seen running up and down both sides of the [Rio Puerco] wash, trying to keep the sheep out of it." The Centers for Disease Control examined a dozen dead animals and called for a more complete study in 1983, then dropped the subject.
More problems began to appear. A waste pile at the United Nuclear mill which had produced the wastes that gushed down the Rio Puerco in 1979 was 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 payment to United Nuclear because of losses related to the accident, sued the company on the belief that it knew the dam which burst was defective before the spill. The dam was only two years old at the time of the accident.
Along the Rio Puerco, several ranchers reacted to state assurances that the spill left no long-term effects by selling their land, for millions of dollars, to the federal government. The ranchers sold out under the 1974 Relocation Act, meant to move Navajos from the former "joint-use area" claimed by the Hopis. The land was purportedly acquired to relocate Navajos who had lost their homes in the land dispute with the Hopis.
The Navajos asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Relocation Commission for assurance that the land was safe. All three declined to provide the requested written assurance to the Navajos. The Navajos raised several questions, including the extent of contamination in underground aquifers; the extent of remaining radioactivity in surface waters and soils, the effects of wind-blown dust from the contaminated area, and the long-term effects of the contamination on livestock and people in the area.
The enormous spill of nuclear waste into the Rio Puerco was but one incident in a distinctly nuclear way of life in Navajoland. The nuclear-mining legacy of 30 years blows through the outlying districts of Shiprock, N.M., the Navajos' largest city, on windy days. The hot, dry winds shave radioactive dust from the tops and sides of large tailings piles around the city. One of them is 70 feet high and a mile long. Until the mid 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission assured the Navajos of Shiprock that the tailings were harmless.
Death in the Mines
In early 1978, however, the Department of Energy released a Nuclear Waste Management Task Force report which said that persons living near the tailings piles have twice the expected rate of lung cancer. By 1978, the Navajos were beginning to trace the roots of a lung cancer epidemic which had perplexed many of them, since the disease was very rare among Navajos before World War II. In addition to exposure from the tailings piles, many of the miners who started America's nuclear stockpile had died of lung cancer.
Although health and safety measures have improved in the mines since the 1950s, due to governmental and popular pressure, present practices still expose workers to unhealthy amounts of radon. As for Kerr-McGee, in whose mines many of the Navajos worked, a company statement maintained as late as mid-1979 that uranium-related deaths among miners were mere allegations.
Lung cancer results from inhalation of radon gas, a by-product of uranium's decay into radium. Tom Barry, in an investigative series for the Navajo Times, found documentation that miners who worked for Kerr-McGee during the 1940s were exposed to between 100 and 1,000 times the dosage of radon now considered safe by the federal government. Harris Charley, who worked in the mines for 15 years, told a United States Senate hearing in 1979, "We were treated like dogs. There was no ventilation in the mines." Pearl Nakai, daughter of a deceased miner, told the same hearing that "No one ever told us about the dangers of uranium." The Senate hearings were convened by Sen. Pete Domenici, New Mexico Republican, who is seeking compensation for disabled uranium miners, and for the families of the deceased. "The miners who extracted uranium from the Colorado Plateau are paying the price today for the inadequate health and safety standards that were then in force," Domenici told the hearing, held at a Holiday Inn near the uranium boom town of Grants, N.M.
The 1979 Senate hearings were part of a proposal to compensate the miners for what investigators called deliberate negligence. Radioactivity in uranium mines was linked to lung cancer by tests in Europe by 1930. Scientific evidence linking radon gas to radioactive illness existed after 1949, but measures to ventilate the Navajo mines were never taken, as the government pressured Kerr-McGee and other producers to increase the amount of uranium they were mining. The Public Health Service recommended ventilation in 1952, but the Atomic Energy Commission said it bore no responsibility for the mines, despite the fact that it bought more than 3 million pounds of uranium from them in 1954 alone. The PHS monitored the health of more than 4,000 miners between 1954 and 1960 without telling them of the threat to their health.
Dr. Joseph Wagoner, special assistant for occupational carcinogens at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency, said that of 3,500 persons who mined uranium in New Mexico, about 200 had died of cancer by the late 1970s. In an average population of 3,500 persons, 40 such deaths could be expected. The 160 extra deaths were not the measure of ignorance, he said. Published data regarding the dangers of radon was widely available to scientists in the 1950s, according to Wagoner. Health and safety precautions in the mines were not cost-effective for the companies, he said. "Thirty years from now we'll have the hidden legacy of the whole thing," Wagoner told Molly Ivins of The New York Times.
Bills that would compensate the miners were introduced, discussed, and died in Congress for a dozen years. By 1990, the death toll among former miners had risen to 450, and was still rising. Relatives of the dead recalled how the miners had eaten their lunches in the mines, washing them down with radioactive water, never having been told that it was dangerous. Many of the men did not even speak English. The Navajo language contains no indigenous word for "radioactivity."
By the early 1990s, about 1,100 Navajo miners or members of their families had applied for compensation related to uranium exposure. The bureaucracy had approved 328 cases, denied 121, and withheld action on 663, an approval rate which Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, characterized as "significantly lower than in other cases of radiation compensation".
Representative Miller said that awards of compensation were being delayed by "a burdensome application system developed by the Department of Justice."
Miller's committee was investigating not only the Navajo death toll from radiation poisoning, but many other reports that indigenous peoples were willfully and recklessly exposed to radiation during the Cold War. The geographic range of purported radiation poisonings spans half the globe -- from the Navajos in the United States Southwest, to Alaskan Natives whose lives were endangered when atomic waste products from Nevada were secretly buried near their villages, to residents of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, an area in which the United States tested atomic and hydrogen bombs in the atmosphere between 1946 and 1958. As investigations deepened, it appeared that the treatment of Navajos was not the exception, but one example of a deadly pattern of reckless disregard for indigenous life in colonized places, human and otherwise.
Portions of this article are excerpted from: Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples, by Donald A. Grinde, Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 1994.
Bruce E. Johansen is a professor of Communications and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is presently working on an annotated bibliography of the debate regarding Iroquois influence on democracy, to be published by Greenwood Press, and a narrative of the debate, to be published by Clear Light Publishers.