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Uranium Mining On Navajo Indian Land

On July 11, 2000, U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton signed into law the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) Amendment Act of 2000. At the turn of the century, we are still grappling with the consequences of uranium mining long ended. But this legislation has not brought to a close the issues raised by uranium mining.

History and Consequences

Uranium mining began in the United States after World War II, in response to the needs of the U.S. government's nuclear program. The Four Corners area of the southwestern United States was found to have accessible uranium deposits, and mining quickly spread throughout the region to include locations on Navajo and Laguna Indian lands. In the northern and western Carrizo Mountains near Cove, Arizona, uranium mining began in 1948, peaked in the years 1955 and 1956, and declined again to cease by 1967.

For Navajos, uranium mining was one of the first contacts they had with the broader wage economy. Compared to the distant railroad jobs that some Navajos worked, the mines opened up right next to Navajo communities such as Cove, Arizona and Monument Valley, Utah. Navajo men walked to work, and while they were paid a low wage, sometimes below the legal minimum, in many cases it was the first wage they had ever received. Navajos engaged in the mining at first thought that they were the beneficiaries of good fortune.

Unknown to these miners, however, science had determined decades before that uranium mining caused lung cancer. By 1949 the causal basis for the observed association between working in uranium mines and lung cancer had been elucidated. Radon builds up in the mines and its decay products (called "radon daughters") lodge in the lung, delivering large amounts of radiation to the surrounding tissue. The U.S. government did little to prevent exposure despite a simple remedy: ventilation. The Navajo miners knew nothing of all this and they and other miners were prevented from gaining too much knowledge by the complicity of the government and mining companies in choosing not to tell the miners. (ACHRE, 1995; Eichstaedt, 1994; Moure-Eraso, 1999)

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA)

When Navajo miners began to fall ill in the early 1960s, a process of learning and advocacy was sparked. It began with widows coming together to talk about the new disease and culminated with the passage of RECA some 30 years later. The journey was not an easy one for traditional Navajos who did not speak English, did not have telephones, and had little understanding of the political process in the United States. (Dawson, Perry & Harrison, 1997) The fact that they succeeded in eliciting change at the level of the federal government is a testament to their perseverance and the justness of their cause.

The original Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was signed into law in 1990. It extended financial compensation and an apology to many workers who had extracted uranium from the 1940s though 1971, the year the government ceased to be the sole purchaser of uranium in the United States. The broad intent of the original legislation failed, how, ever, to provide compensation to many deserving claimants; still others had to hire lawyers to grapple with an unfriendly bureaucracy before receiving payment.

Many affected Navajos note that the implementation of the law did not meet their expectation for "compassionate compensation." (Brugge et al., 1997) To Navajos, compassion is an expression of great love; RECA was at best an illusion, offering something it did not -- and could not -- give to the people whom it failed to help. Navajos feel that the government either does not know what compassion is or interprets it differently than do the Navajo.

The most important of the recent amendments to RECA was the lowering of the level of exposure required for compensation; many former miners were ill, had substantial exposure to radon in the mines, but did not qualify under the old legislation. Despite progress on such critical points, however, concerns with RECA as am amended remain. For example, Kathleen Tsosie of Crownpoint, New Mexico, who lost a father, an uncle, and a grandfather when she was young, says, "It makes me mad to hear that the federal government only offers $150,000."

Harry Badoni, a former miner (now deceased), pointed out how inadequate the compensation is: "My sister called on me at home last summer. She told me that she needed a new lung on one side. We talked about this at length. She said that the doctors quoted her over $300,000 for this operation…. I think it is a shame that he government compensation for the miners is a mere $100,000, not even half the price of a new lung. We are dying and nothing can be done about it."

A widow, Dorothy Joe, has a different take on the same problem. She says, "No amount of money is worth a life. We lost our loved ones. They're gone forever. We'll never see them again. Money doesn't talk; it does not have feelings such as love. It cannot talk to you and hug you. Our children will never know how it feels to be hugged by their fathers."

Other Remaining Problems

Timothy Benally and Phil Harrison, Navajos with extensive ties to the uranium mining communities, conducted interviews in 1995 for use in the book and exhibit, Memories Come To Us In the Rain and the Wind: Oral Histories and Photographs of Navajo Uranium Miners. All of the Navajos interviewed either worked in uranium mines themselves or had immediate relatives who had died from illnesses contracted due to their work in uranium mining. The interviews reveal 26 themes, some of which are distinct but closely related, and virtually all of which are realistic health risks. Few have been investigated or conclusively addressed through intervention or remediation. These themes fall into four major areas of possible action/investigation: oral route of exposure for miners, physical injuries of miners, community exposure to uranium ore, and working in the mills. Of these areas, only the mill workers were appreciably addressed by the amendments to RECA.

Community Exposures

A content analysis of the interviews suggested that the communities adjacent to the mines may have been exposed to hazardous constituents of uranium ore and could be experiencing disease as a result. This concern applies both to historical exposures and to present-day abandoned mines that have not yet been reclaimed.

The situation for one family illustrates the problem. Elsie Mae Cly and her family live in Monument Valley, Utah, a major tourist attraction and a former site of uranium mining.(1) Ms. Cly lived in a hogan (a traditional Navajo house) built with rock from one of the uranium mines. Her family often slept directly on the uranium containing rock, shielded only by carpets. Her children played on the contaminated floor. When the U.S. EPA assessed the now-abandoned Hogan earlier this year, they found radiation at about 50 times clearance levels for hazardous waste sites (field notes, U.S. EPA, January 12, 2000, as provided to Ms. Cly under a FOIA request). Ms. Cly says, "when the rain comes, you can see the white stuff that comes down the walls of the mesa from the mine. They should close all the mines in Monument Valley. They have to find out where the mines are and where the waste is piled and put it back in the holes. That is what we want…. There is a ceremony that the Navajo do whenever they get some kind of illness. [Ceremonies are performed now] all the time…. A lot of Navajos live near the mines."

Gilbert Badoni of the Navajo Nation Dependents of Uranium Workers Committee is trying to organize families like Ms. Cly's to seek assistance with this concern. He points to the long-standing problem of community exposure. He has a photograph that shows his family living next to the uranium mines at Slick Rock, Colorado in 1960. Mr. Badoni's campaign for reparations for the families of uranium miners includes health studies to substantiate their claims. He plans to lead a delegation to Washington in April 2001 to seek federal support for his mission.

Renewed Uranium Mining

The legacy left by uranium mining has precipitated a pitched fight to preserve the community of Crownpoint from contamination. The focus of the struggle is Texas-based Hydro-Resources Incorporated (HRI). HRI would like to extract uranium from Navajo lands around Crownpoint using a "leaching" process which injects a solution into the ground to dissolve the uranium before sucking it back to the surface. The focal point of this controversy is not concern for underground miners (there would be none using this method), but rather the potential to contaminate the groundwater (ENDAUM & Shuey, 1997). This struggle may come to a close, not because of federal or corporate hesitancy to renew mining on Navajo lands, but rather due to HRI's financial problems.

Rita Capitan, a member of the Governing Board of the Crownpoint-based Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, recently summed up the weariness many Navajos feel about their protracted experience with uranium. Said Ms. Capitan, "I am just an ordinary person. I just want to be home baking cookies, doing housework. That's the way I want to be. But the seven years that [we've] done this have really disrupted our lives, both in a good way and a bad way." (Capitan, 2000)

Making Things Right

The Navajo call uraniun leetso, literally "yellow earth" or "yellow dirt." Esther Yazzie points out (1998) that the word leetso connotes a monster: in the Navajo language it sounds like a reptile. Speaking of his experience in the mines, George Tutt, a former miner, said, "We would find these [yellow strips of uranium ore] like you found big dead snakes, because you can see where the head was and the tail was. When you dynamited the wall of the rock edge, you could see it. We would look at it and wonder what it was. We would say it must have been the ancient monster snakes from the beginning of time." (Brugge et al., 1999)

In the traditional Navajo way of thinking, the proper prayers asking permission of the Earth before disturbing it must be offered; failure to do so causes imbalance and harm. For most Navajos, the process of repairing a wrong is ceremonial, a foreign concept to the Western mind. Navajos frequently consult with traditional healers about medical problems. With respect to reparations, they follow the tradition of offering nalyeeh. Nalyeeh translates as something like "restitution," but it means more than that. It entails the respectful talking out of what happened in order to identify offending actions, to apologize for them, and to identify methods for righting these wrongs. Nalyeeh is "enough so there will be no hard feelings." It insists on good intentions to undo the harm and restore order and safety. Those good intentions must become plans, and those plans must be executed. The parties must then think about the evil that was addressed and the way it was overcome, and reconsider how everyone must live in the future.

The deeply flawed efforts at compensation by the U.S. government go against traditional Navajo thinking. The Navajo believe that all who were harmed -- miners, widows, and children -- should be paid for their suffering. To be truly compassionate, compensation must be free of red tape and free of qualifying medical exams. Financial compensation, research into the effects on the community, and clean-up of the contaminated sites might one day be completed, but it is hard to imagine that reparations could ever meet the spirit of nalyeeh. Already the tortuous path toward reparation is littered with the detritus of too many failures. For many Navajos, it is too late: the apology will never seem sincere.

References & further reading

Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) (1995, October). Final Report. U.S. Government Printing Office.

Brugge, D., Benally, T., Harrison, P., Austin-Garrison, M., & FasthorseBegay, L. (1997). Memories Come to Us in the Rain and the Wind: Oral Histories and Photographs of Navajo Uranium Miners and their Families. Boston: Tufts School of Medicine.

Brugge, D. et al. (1999, February). The Navajo Uranium Miner Oral History and Photography Project. In Dine baa hane bi naaltsoos: Collected papers from the seventh through the tenth Navajo Studies Conferences. Piper, J., ed. Window Rock, Arizona: Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, pp 85-96.

Brugge, D. & Benally, T. (1998, Spring). Navajo Indian voices and faces testify to the legacy of uranium mining. Cultural Survival Quarterly 22:1, pp 16-19.

Brugge, D., Benally, T., & Yazzie, E. (1999). Into the nuclear age as a hand mucker: Interview with Navajo George Tutt, former uranium miner. New Solutions 9, pp 195-206.

Capitan, R. (2000, Fall). Opposition to new uranium mining gains momentum in Eastern Navajo area. Voices From the Earth 1, pp 6-7.

Dawson, S.E., Perry, P.H. & Harrison Jr., P. (1997). Advocacy and Social Action Among Navajo Uranium Workers and Their Families. In Social Work in Health Settings: Practice in Context, Second Edition. New York & London: the Haworth Press.

Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) & Shuey, C. (1997, Summer). Why Navajos resist new uranium mining. The Workbook 22, pp 52-62.

Eichstaedt, P.H. (1994). If You Poison Us. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books.

Moure-Eraso, R. (1999). Observational Studies as Human Experimentation: The uranium mining experience in the Navajo Nation (1947-66). New Solutions 9, pp. 193-178.

Yazzie, E. & Zion, J. (1998, Fall). Leetso: The powerful yellow monster. Navajo Uranium Miner Oral History & Photography Project Newsletter. Boston: Tufts University School of Medicine.

(1). Featured recently in the PBS documentary, The Return of Navajo Boy.

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