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.

Don’t be a Jerk – discussing politics, religion, and policy

DebatingSocThis is a repost, but I think it applies more than ever: I attended a lecture by Dr. Benjamin Cline at Western New Mexico University: How to Talk About Religion and Politics Without Being a Jerk.  The world would be a better place if we all tried.

Cline discussed why our passions run so high on these topics: religion and politics are at the core of what makes life worth living for each of us.  They underlie much of what we do.  Our ideology is tied to the meaning of life as we each see it.  It’s our basis for deciding what’s valuable and what sources of information to trust.  Cline asks us to forget the old etiquette advice to avoid these subjects.  We need to talk about them, and to succeed we need to stop being jerks. Continue reading

Gun Control – A Ghost of a Chance

After the horrendous shooting deaths of dozens of concert-goers in a Las Vegas parking lot last week, one could have hoped that the country might be allowed a few days of respectful silence to lick its emotional wounds and grieve, but that was not to be.  The sirens were hardly silent before our ongoing national gunfight took back the stage.

The skirmish lines are numbingly familiar. Anti-gunners clamor for more “common sense” gun control laws, while pro-gunners argue for more armed law-abiding citizens patrolling the streets. As the facts of this week’s tragedy begin to accumulate, they suggest that neither of these assertions holds much water.

The gun lobby’s favorite canard is “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  There were armed security guards near the concert stage when the shooter opened fire.  What good were their handguns when he let loose from a hotel window some 400 yards away?   Even seasoned SWAT teams were helpless to intervene.

On the other hand, control advocates are particularly fond of the idea of reinstating the expired ban on “assault weapons”, an indistinct descriptor generally attached to a gun’s appearance rather than its lethality.  Gun deaths actually decreased in the US in the years following the expiration of the original ban, and long guns have been involved in a tick less than 3% of all mass shootings.

A flicker of agreement between the two sides has emerged, with both calling for regulating so-called “bump stocks”, the aftermarket devices that allow semi-automatics like the AR-15 to fire several hundred rounds a minute.  Nobody needs that kind of fire rate except the military and adrenaline junkies for whom it evidently serves as a substitute for Viagra (and a more expensive one; gun shops that sell these accessories report that most buyers discard them soon after discovering that they can easily burn through a thousand bucks-worth of ammunition in a few minutes).

Banning a gun accessory that has been on the market for years is problematic.  Thousands of bump stocks are already out there, and since they are only a gun part there is no record of ownership. But the biggest obstacle to firearm regulation may be maker tech – our fast-growing capability to envision and manufacture complex gadgetry in the anonymous comfort of our home workshops.  Coming soon to a basement near you – Ghost Guns.

I received an email from a tech-savvy friend linking to a video from Wired magazine.  In the video one of the editors documents how he made an AR-15 rifle from a kit.  Gun parts are not regulated, and the kit is sold legally through the mail.  One vital component is not included – the receiver, which is the precisely machined housing that contains the trigger and firing mechanisms, the heart of the gun.  Receivers are not for sale, but maker tech to the rescue.  For around $1500 anyone can buy a tabletop computer-controlled (CNC) milling machine which will turn a chunk of aluminum into an AR-15 receiver from plans available on the internet.  Presto, your very own “assault rifle”.  The finished firearm has no serial numbers and no record of it exists in any state or Federal database.  A Ghost Gun.

Total cost for this do-it-yourself project, including the CNC mill (which is marketed under the name Ghost Gunner) is less than $3K.  As these tools and 3D printers become more capable and less expensive, virtually all the parts needed to assemble ghost guns will soon be makeable by individuals in the privacy of their own garages.

There is an old saying that government regulation is always at least 5 years behind whatever it is trying to regulate.  In the case of technology in general and maker tech in particular the time lag is much greater.  The effectiveness of gun regulations already on the books is debatable.  Imagine how much more complicated the regulatory undertaking becomes when the guns technically don’t even exist.  Can (or should) buyers of machine tools and 3D printers be forced to undergo background checks?  Is aircraft grade aluminum to be regulated because of what people might make from it?

For those policymakers trying to come up with “commom sense” ways to prevent gun deaths without turning half the country into de facto criminals, your job just became a lot harder.

Take a Knee for America

Oakland_Raiders_National_Anthem_Kneeling_(37444579735)New readers to this blog may not know, but our contributors worked in America’s nuclear weapons complex. We love our country and are called (by Congress – honest, they wrote this into legislation) Cold War Warriors. You can’t get more patriotic than plutonium.

I’ve been conflicted over NFL players dropping to one knee during the national anthem and have struggled to decide what I think of the protests.

  • On the one hand, I personally find it upsetting. On the other, I find the bias against people of color in our justice system more upsetting.
  • I would like to see all Americans stand together for at least a moment, but I also realize that protesting discrimination will make the country better.
  • Players are employees – dressed in team uniforms – and we all relinquish some rights while on the job. That argues they should not express personal beliefs on the field. On the other hand, how many of us are required by our employer to make a specific political declaration, on national TV, by standing for the anthem? Teams want players to be role models, to inspire fans, to donate part of their salaries to charities – some of their off-field activities are contractual. How can you require them to be so public and then stop them from stating their own opinions?
  • Players say their protest is not disrespectful, and only a jerk would tell someone else what they mean when they speak. But no one gets to define symbols that belong to us all, so I seeboth sides here.
  • Money doesn’t buy a person’s soul, so I don’t accept that a well paid player (or anyone) has no right to point out injustice.
  • Coopting the military to justify a position isn’t fair – members of the military hold a range of opinions just like any other group of Americans. Pitting “our flag” against “them” places Americans in separate tribes and prevents us from discussing important problems.
  • To anyone who says this is the wrong sort of protest – how much time did we spend talking about the justice system and policing before? Maybe some energy is wasted when we argue over the form rather than substance, but at least we’re talking.

At the last Bills vs Broncos game I watched a player drop to one knee with his hand over his heart. Hand on heart for love of America. Take a knee to demand we live up to our ideals. It was beautiful.

My feelings have finally crystalized.

Take a knee for America.

Without Trust It’s Hard to Support Anyone’s Policies

Presidents aren’t always free to craft their legacies. George W. Bush didn’t campaign on – or expect to confront – the terrorism of 9/11. Barak Obama didn’t campaign on – or expect to confront – the second greatest financial crisis in American history. So we voters didn’t choose them because of policies to tackle their greatest challenges.

That’s why character and trust are important.
For most of my life, I believed policies were more important. I tried to read politicians’ proposals and study analyses from friends and foes.

Silly me.
One of my favorite books, reviewed here, tried to explain, and as much as I liked that book, I still didn’t get it.

It makes sense to vote based on values.
Does the potential President care about underdog groups? Have a sense of fairness? Who receives their loyalty? Do they inspire respect? Have noble goals? The last election gave me poor choices and a miserable outcome.

I don’t believe Donald Trump actually has any policies – only expediencies to get crowds roaring. The fact that those expediencies are disliked by two thirds of Americans doesn’t seem to bother him.

Trump doesn’t want my support and he’s not going to get it. At this point, it’s hard for me to imagine what he could do to change my mind. Maybe unravel the bellicose standoff on the Korean peninsula, or bring Israel and Palestine into talks that lead to a satisfying conclusion. Really create a roaring economy. Actually provide good healthcare for all. But, based on decades of history, that’s a lot to ask.

A rational opposition opposes the policies of those in power because they expect those policies will, perhaps unintentionally, hurt more people than they help. But that’s not the only reason to “resist” and may not even be a primary motivation.

Studies show that people are willing to punish bullies and tyrants even at high cost to themselves. That means that some of my fellow citizens are willing to see terrible things happen to America on Trump’s watch, just to prove to the nation we made the wrong choices in 2016. I recall seeing the same reaction to Obama’s election. Human beings are weird.

The GOP elite in Congress are worse than Trump because they plan to implement policies that will change the nation – and I don’t trust them. Tax reform, healthcare, infrastructure, immigration – these are all problems that need to be addressed and I don’t know what to do. I need to trust my leadership if I am to follow them.

In the past I’ve felt the Republicans had good – even better – ideas on how to solve national problems than the Democrats. But today I don’t think the GOP wants to solve them. Where their fiscal philosophies have been tried, as in Kansas, Republicans seem blind to negative outcomes – something I’ve accused Democrats of in the past. “Doubling down” makes no sense to me.

So I don’t trust Congress’s motives, which means I’m not likely to support their policies. I can justify my position by, for example, pointing to the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis that says millions of people would lose healthcare coverage under the “mean” GOP bills – so different from the good, cheap, healthcare-for-all Trump promised. Congress seems to feel no need to implement his promise and Trump doesn’t make any proposals of his own. They’ve all lost my support.

Can the Democrats offer a better answer? Will America swing from one extreme to the other as fanatics at each end fail in turn, but double-down?

Perhaps we’re witnessing the dissolution of both major political parties. Such things have happened before. Even though the current balloting structure entrenches Republicans and Democrats today, that could change. As Gzep says here, perhaps it’s time to try something else. Perhaps, sometime in the future, scholars will say we were privileged to live on a cusp of history. Unlucky for us, we have to live through it.

As the English expression purported to be a Chinese curse says:

May you live in interesting times.

I Had a Dream…

Like most literates these days I’m watching the political battle unfold over the future status of children who ended up in the United States because their parents decided to come here illegally.  These kids, many of whom are now adults, are known as DREAMers, as much for their dream of being real Americans as for the failed legislation, known as the DREAM Act, that would have made their dream a reality.  Dueling Executive orders and a recalcitrant Congress have left them in legal limbo, sitting on a ticking deportation bomb set to blow up their lives in less than six months.  Many Americans seem indifferent to this outcome and many more seem eager for it.

As children we all had dreams.  Let me tell you about one of mine.

I have almost no memories of the first couple of years of my existence, only a few fleeting images that family members helped me pin down to year two or three.  What I do remember is how terribly dependent I was on my mother.  My dad left us shortly after I was born, and I doubt that I have to elaborate on the emotional effects of that.  I don’t doubt that some of those effects manifested themselves in this particular nocturnal excursion that appeared when I was four or five.

In this dream I am alone on a dark, empty street, watching my mother walking resolutely away from me.  I could see her slender form, dimly lit by a fading streetlight, her heels clicking on the pavement.  It was graphic and frightening, one of only two nightmares I can recall from my childhood (the other one involved being treed by elephants in my backyard – a subject for another post).  I couldn’t understand why she would leave me, and I was terrified.  My most overwhelming impulse was to follow her, wherever she was going.  It wasn’t a choice, it was an imperative.

I still remember that dream clearly, 67 years later, and I can’t avoid thinking of it whenever I hear about the DREAMers and their quandary.  Based on my experience as a very dependent child, I have to ask:  What else could these kids do?  Let mother or dad walk away?  Stand alone and watch them disappear into the night?

The answer coming from far-too-large a fraction of the American public makes me wonder what sort of superhuman childhood they must have had.  Were they totally independent by age four?  Did they have the maturity and presence of mind to recognize and correct their parents’ legal missteps, piping up a reprimand from the back seat whenever daddy edged past the speed limit or mamma forgot to put on her seat belt?  Were they all, as pre-adolescents, fluent in US immigration law?  How else to explain their apparent belief that these immigrant children possessed the wherewithal to persuade their parents not to enter the United States illegally or, failing that, to say, “Fine, mom and dad, hit the road.  I’ll be just fine staying right here.”

How these budding Einsteins all grew up to become so hard-headed, unempathic and ultra-susceptable to every bogus anti-immigrant bloviation on the web is beyond my ken.  How wonderful to have been so precocious.  And how unfortunate to have regressed so completely  to the mean.

These supposed savants are focusing their ire on a group of young people who, by and large, represent exactly the type of immigrant that most countries are pining for; smart, well-educated, well-behaved, articulate (most of them probably speak better English than I do) and either primed to contribute to or already contributing to the society in which they were raised.  Many have graduated college with honors in spite of the extra burdens placed on them by their status.  Criminals?  A much lower percentage of DREAMers has had brushes with the law (discounting ICE) than has the general populace.

Our universities and corporations go to great lengths, and considerable expense, to recruit high-quality foreign students and workers.  How does it make sense to toss out the ones we have already educated and assimilated on what surely has to be the most shameful of legal technicalities?  Were they remiss in not coming forward and applying for citizenship?  In reality, all that action would have done is sentence them to 13-odd years in the meat grinder of this country’s capricious and incomprehensible immigration system.  Almost as scary as being treed by elephants.

Anti-immigrant emotions run high and hot these days, threatening to incinerate any attempt at setting a firm, fair policy for dealing with our DREAMers.  But if we let our lesser selves deny these victims the chance to stay in, and contribute to, the only country they have ever known, we deserve to have our sleep disrupted by marauding pachyderms – or worse.