Navajo Reservations in New Mexico Suffer the Ravages of Uranium Mining


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Navajo Reservations in New Mexico Suffer the Ravages of Uranium Mining


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 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 1000 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.

“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.

“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.”

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