Saturday, February 22, 2014

The nightmare of the Navajo

Twenty years ago I was asked by a remarkable man named Michael O'Shaughnessy and his wife Marianne if I would write a book about the devastation caused by uranium mining on the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners Area.

I was thrilled at the prospect. At the time I had been working as a reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper covering the battle to bury so-called low-level radioactive waste in underground salt beds near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The stuff to be buried was the contaminated debris -- tools, gloves, beakers, etc -- used by the plutonium handlers in America's nuclear weapons factories.

(The controversy surrounding that project, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), is far from over since now the site, just as many opponents feared, is being mentioned as a burial site for high-level radioactive waste.)

The story of the Navajo uranium miners was a compelling aspect of the same story. With the waste burial project, I had been writing about the end-game of America's Cold War nuclear arsenal. The Navajo people and their lands told of the front end, the source of of America's Cold War weaponry.

I researched and wrote the book on the fly, making frequent trips to the reservation to meet with former Navajo uranium miners who were dying of lung cancer. They lived in all corners of the reservation, in communities that were left with contaminated water supplies and piles of  uranium ore and processed waste.

I visited one family that had used the chunks of discarded uranium to build a house. It had exposed the family and others similarly situated to constant bombardment by low levels of radiation, the effects of which are only now becoming apparent.

I visited dozens of abandoned mine sites, which was easy to do. There were more than 1,000 on the reservation due to its unique geography that had left the Navajos sitting on rich deposits of uranium that were critical to America's nuclear arsenal.

Most mines were small. They called them "dog holes." They'd been dug by crews of miners who worked with picks, shovels and wheel barrows, loaded the ore in trucks, and drove it to one of the processing plants built on the reservation.

Some were bigger mines, but the techniques and tools were the same. The uranium was found in horizontal layers of sandstone, which cracked and crumbled easily with dynamite. Eager to earn profits quickly, the miners often scrambled into the mines shortly after the blasts and inhaled choking clouds of dust laden with silica and uranium.

The silica from the sandstone lacerated the miners' lungs and left deadly particles of uranium lodged in the delicate tissues. Some miners died within years. Others died after decades of dwindling health.

The Navajo uranium miners knew nothing of the dangers they faced, since few spoke English. Their ancient language lacked a word for radiation. Yet the government was well aware that the miners were in trouble. But rather than insuring miner safety, the government conducted a secret study that charted the deteriorating health of the miners. It was a well documented death watch.

Despite the destruction of environment and the death and health problems caused by the uranium mining, little was or has been done to rectify these problems. Two massive lawsuits filed on behalf of the Navajos by former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, resulted in no award of damages or cleanup.

The major mining companies were not held responsible because the Navajo miners had not filed their worker compensation claims in time. The government was excused when a federal judge ruled that in times of national emergency, such as the Cold War, certain people were expendable.

The only relief came in 1993 when the U.S. Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provided one-time payments of $100,000 to stricken miners or their surviving families. Qualifying for the compensation was yet another nightmare for the Navajos.

The results of my work became the 1994 book, If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans, published by Red Crane Books, the publishing company that the O'Shaughnessys created. The company's amazing book list was ultimately turned over to the Museum of New Mexico Press.

The story of the Navajo and uranium is far from over, however. As was once again made clear in an article this past week in the New York Times, the uranium and radioactive pollution continues to plague the Navajo. Rather than cleaning up the mess, the U.S. government is now moving the Navajos off of their land.

This situation on the Navajo lands is undoubtedly one of the darkest chapters of U.S. history. It is an on-going human and environmental disaster that neither the public nor the government wishes to acknowledge.

It is absurd that these original Americans have been subjected to such an on-going horror. As the government drags its feet, refusing to face the problem, the radioactive pollution continues to creep across the Navajo lands and leach into the ground water.

This nightmare began in the mid-1950s, nearly 65 years ago. Several generations of Navajos have suffered, and many more will as well. When will the nightmare end?

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