Legacy of Uranium Mining in the Southwest Falls on Navajo Nation

I recently drove through the Navajo Nation reservation in northeastern Arizona. I was on my way to view the eclipse from Idaho, hurrying along the interminable Route 191, idly watching the dry landscape go by. I’d never been there before but words on signs began to tug at my memory – Diné, Shiprock. This is the reservation featured in Tony Hillerman’s novels, by officers Leaphorn and Chee.

I only found images of large and lovely healthcare centers

I only found images of large and lovely healthcare centers

In several little towns I noticed simple store fronts with simple signs – Uranium Care or Uranium Treatment. I’m not sure which it was. They came up and passed by faster than I could grab a picture. I’m not sure now about the words on the signs. What was that about?

A google search at home immediately made it clear.

Uranium mining on the Navajo Nation helped America win World War II, but at an ongoing cost “throughout the once worthless desert landscape of the reservation.” earthisland

Mining companies blasted 4 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land between 1944 and 1986. The federal government purchased the ore to make atomic weapons. As the Cold War threat petered out the companies left, abandoning more than 500 mines. NPR

Maybe early ignorance and the press of war could excuse sloppy and dangerous practices in the 1940s. Perhaps it was fair to ask citizens to bear this burden to defeat the evil of Nazism and the Axis Powers. After all, some paid with their lives in battle. And who, besides the people living locally, were likely to take most of the mining jobs in a remote section of the Great American Desert?

We soon knew better. I myself started work in America’s Nuclear Weapons Complex in 1981. Safety was a priority, and worker health carefully monitored and studied. Today, because of my job, I have certain benefits – part of my compensation for the job I did. By my time, the hazards of exposure to radioactivity were managed and a lot of the complaints about Rocky Flats are hyperbolic. But there’s another American story.

“When they did the mining, there would be these pools that would fill up,” she says. “And all of the kids swam in them. And my dad did, too.”

Many Navajo unwittingly let their livestock drink from those pools, and their children play in mine debris piles… Cancer rates doubled in the Navajo Nation from the 1970s to the 1990s. NPR

I know the people who conscientiously worked at Rocky Flats to ensure worker and public safety. And clean-ups are underway in Arizona:

“We’re spending a lot of time making sure that the polluters pay, so it isn’t the federal taxpayer” … But one-third of the mining companies have shut down or have run out of money. The federal government knew about some of the dangers decades ago, but only started the cleanup in recent years. NPR

I also know, from my recent service as a volunteer fire fighter, that it’s easy to say the words “thank you” and easy to slap a sticker on your car’s bumper.

But who wants to pay? Not my war, not my decision, I’ve got my own problems – entirely understandable. If it weren’t that way, maybe we’d be mired down in the past instead of building a brighter future. Luck plays a huge part in anyone’s life – some draw a good hand and others don’t.

I didn’t find any pictures on the internet of the modest clinics I passed – I’m sorry I didn’t take my own. These people from a different place and – some – a different time are brothers and sisters I never knew.

Sometimes history leaves me sad.

2 thoughts on “Legacy of Uranium Mining in the Southwest Falls on Navajo Nation

  1. So much attention is paid to abandoned gold and silver mines in Colorado the effluvia of which is innocuous compared to what is present in the leavings of uranium mining. This kind of behavior is part of the reason we RF expats have such a tough time refuting the critics. A great exposé.

    • It also points to the terrible failure of national “news” which has turned into the cheapest TV possible – easily available video snippets surrounded by outraged talking heads who are easy to schedule, get through makeup, and coach for better ratings. Does anything happen in the rest of the country or rest of the world?

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