Racial Discrimination and Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Navajo’s Struggle against Uranium Mining

A long struggle against injustice took a new turn this fall when a group of Navajo activists moved forward with an appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The New Mexico-based activists are trying to stop the Canadian company Laramide Resources, and its US subsidiary NuFuels, from mining for uranium on Navajo Nation land.[1]

In a document submitted to the Inter-American Commission on October 21, the Navajo activists argue that the US government, by granting a mining license to the company, violated their human rights. Uranium mining, the document states, “will contaminate groundwater that is important as a source of drinking water and as a source of cultural identity.”[2]

This campaign against the Laramide/NuFuels mining is the latest episode in the decades-long story of how uranium mining in the United States has devastated Native American communities. The tale involves racial and economic discrimination, environmental degradation—and nuclear weapons.

A naturally occurring radioactive element found in rocks, soil, and elsewhere, uranium has various technological uses that include fueling nuclear reactors and creating the extraordinary destructive power of nuclear weapons.[3] Long before it ever becomes part of such weapons, though, uranium poses a deadly threat to humans. Inhaling and eating uranium particles can lead to kidney damage or failure. Radioactivity from uranium and its decay products such as radon and radium can also cause various health problems, including many cancers. Radiation-induced health problems can result from inhaling or ingesting uranium or sometimes simply being around large quantities of the element.[4]

Uranium mining became a large-scale activity in the United States from the 1940s to the 1980s, partly to supply crucial materials for the nation’s Cold War-era nuclear weapons arsenal. Mining companies extracted uranium from thousands of sites across the western United States. Many mines were located within the Navajo Nation, which encompasses about 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Millions of tons of uranium were mined from Navajo land, with terrible consequences for the people and environment.[5]

Companies hired Navajo men to work in the mines, while women and children were used as support staff (payment was often in goods such as potatoes and flour, which avoided strict record keeping). Further, harmful contact to uranium wasn’t contained to work within the mines. Miners would come home covered in uranium dust; people used uranium-contaminated materials in buildings; uranium contaminated water supplies used by humans and animals; and the wind carried uranium dust.[6]

Carol Talker recalls her miner father returning to their Arizona home coated in yellow uranium dust. The water used to wash his clothes later became her bathwater: “When mom washed his clothes … ‘Hey, there’s some water, we can shower, take a little bath and not waste it.’ That’s what we did. We were exposed to uranium in a lot of ways.”[7]

Cecilia Joe, who worked as a miner over 70 years ago, comments, “They never told us uranium was dangerous.” She remembers her siblings putting uranium on their teeth, where it looked like gold.[8]

Perhaps the most infamous uranium-mining disaster occurred near Church Rock, New Mexico, in 1979. Local processing of uranium ore produced large amounts of radioactive waste, which was stored in such a way that it bled into groundwater supplies over time. This gradual process of contamination was dramatically accelerated, however, when a storage unit broke open on July 16, 1979, and released 94 million gallons of radioactive waste into a nearby river.[9]

Decades of pervasive contamination had predictable results. Death rates among the Navajo from lung cancer, emphysema, and other respiratory diseases reached unusually high levels. Rates of other cancers, kidney disease, and thyroid disease also rose. Cancer rates doubled within the Navajo nation from the 1970s to the 1990s. The contamination exacted a horrifying toll on Cecilia Joe’s family: seven of her siblings died in the span of 20 days.[10]

Uranium mining tapered off as demand fell. The toxic legacy remains, though: the Navajo Nation includes over 500 abandoned mines, most of which have not been properly cleaned up and environmentally contained.[11] Although US government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy, have made efforts to clean up uranium contamination, these efforts have been sluggish and incomplete.[12]

A little over a decade ago, Navajo rancher Larry Gordy discovered in his grazing land an abandoned mine unmarked by fences or signs—despite a radiation level capable of causing malignant tumors.[13] Just this year, a Navajo community in New Mexico has been struggling to get toxic waste moved an acceptable distance away from Nation land.[14]

Further, as the appeal before the Inter-American Commission shows, attempts to mine uranium from Navajo land have not necessarily ended. This campaign against further mining has now lasted for decades; the Navajo first appealed to the Commission a decade ago and the Commission finally agreed this year to hear the appeal.[15]

A favorable Commission decision could help with future legal cases and activism. As lawyer Eric Jantz comments, “There is moral value in having an international human rights body lay bare the abuses of the nuclear industry and the US government’s complicity in those abuses.”[16]

Whatever the Commission decides, the injustice of uranium mining must be addressed. Consider urging your representative and senators to support H.R.5338/S.2798, which would extend and expand eligibility for financial compensation to those affected by mining.[17] Consider also following the organization Clean Up the Mines (https://cleanupthemines.org/) for more information and action ideas.

Uranium mining has been a frightening example of how threats to human life can intersect. Mining’s dangers combined with racial and economic discrimination to take their toll on the Navajo—while producing materials for weapons of mass destruction. As Navajo official Daniel Yazzie aptly puts it, “Uranium was mined, was extracted and utilized to take lives, to kill people.”[18] In that respect, the mining undoubtedly achieved its goals.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.

Notes

[1] Susan Montoya Bryan, “Human Rights Panel to Hear Navajo Uranium Contamination Case,” Associated Press, October 21, 2021, https://bit.ly/3wHM5Ur; Cody Nelson, “‘Ignored for 70 Years’: Human Rights Group to Investigate Uranium Contamination on Navajo Nation,” Guardian, October 27, 2021, https://bit.ly/3c3u8Ga.

[2] “Petitioners’ Additional Observations Regarding the Merits That Pertain to the United States Government’s Failure to Protect the Human Rights of the Residents of Crownpoint and Churckrock, Navajo Nation, New Mexico, United States of America,” Case No. 14.544, Submitted to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, accessed November 12, 2021, https://bit.ly/3qw8OS1.

[3] United States Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, “What Is Uranium?,” accessed November 12, 2021, https://bit.ly/3oqT4x2

[4] Leslie Macmillan, “Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous,” New York Times, March 31, 2012, https://nyti.ms/3CbbBT9; United States Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, “Uranium Health Effects,” accessed November 12, 2021, https://bit.ly/3kvBV4q.

[5] Mary F. Calvert, “Toxic Legacy of Uranium Mines on Navajo Nation Confronts Interior Nominee Deb Haaland,” Yahoo News, February 23, 2021, https://bit.ly/30j7sj8; Macmillan, “Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land.”

[6] Calvert, “Toxic Legacy of Uranium Mines.”

[7] Mary F. Calvert, “The Victims and Those Left Behind,” Yahoo News, February 24, 2021, https://bit.ly/3c8fP3k.

[8] Calvert, “Toxic Legacy of Uranium Mines.”

[9] Trip Jennings, “Remembering the Largest Radioactive Spill in U.S. History,” New Mexico In Depth, July 7, 2014, https://bit.ly/2NkEbhq.

[10] Calvert, “Toxic Legacy of Uranium Mines.”

[11] Ibid.; Arlyssa Becenti, “Navajo Nation Pushes for Radioactive Waste Remnants to Be Removed,” Source New Mexico, October 24, 2021, https://bit.ly/3HhEXmf.

[12] Calvert, “Toxic Legacy of Uranium Mines”; Macmillan, “Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land.”

[13] Macmillan, “Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land.”

[14] Becenti, “Navajo Nation Pushes for Radioactive Waste Remnants to Be Removed.”

[15] Bryan, “Human Rights Panel to Hear Navajo Uranium Contamination Case.”

[16] Nelson, “‘Ignored for 70 years.’”

[17] “H.R.5338 – Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2021,” accessed November 12, 2021, https://bit.ly/3F5z0Hg; “S.2798 – Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2021,” accessed November 12, 2021, https://bit.ly/3wG6j0x; Navajo Nation, Office of the President and Vice President, “President Nez Offers Support for the Introduction of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2021,” September 22, 2021, https://bit.ly/3Db31VF.

[18] Calvert, “The Victims and Those Left Behind.”

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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