In a new book, “Yellow Dirt. An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed”, award-winning environmental journalist Judy Pasternak follows four generations of Navajo families in a uranium mining area. She chronicles the cultural stoicism that prohibited them from complaining for so long about the alarming rates of cancer deaths, the betrayal of trust by corporate and government interests, the growing awareness of the tragedy visited on them in the name of national security, and the efforts to fight for restoration.
The crime story in "Yellow Dirt" develops around early tensions within the Atomic Energy Comittee. Pasternak quotes AEC safety inspector Ralph Batie telling a Denver Post reporter in 1949: "Definite radiation hazards exist in all the plants now operating." Batie was ordered to "keep your mouth shut." Jesse Johnson, the liaison between Washington and the mining companies, cut Batie's travel budget and strong-armed him into transferring out of the area. Pasternak writes that "Johnson simply would not allow uranium to pose a distinct peril of its own; he would not let cancer be an issue."
Sixty years later, while U.S. Congress considers amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) which would specifically allow compensation to workers exposed after 1971, make qualification for benefits easier to obtain, incorporate additional exposure testing and apply to those exposed to fallout from nuclear testing in more geographical areas, additional RECA coverage efforts are in the works.
One movement seeks to expand RECA to cover members of the Navajo Nation who were workers or children of workers in the uranium industry. Navajo workers and their descendants have experienced unique and devastating effects since uranium mining began on or near reservation lands.
Uranium Mines on Reservation Lands
As the largest Native American tribe in the U.S., the Navajo Nation covers about 27,000 square miles of parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Because some of the uranium mines operating during the 1950s and 1960s were located on Navajo reservation lands in these states, many of the uranium mine workers were members of the Navajo Nation and were repeatedly exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. This caused the uranium miners, their families and later generations throughout the Navajo Nation to experience radiation-related illnesses like cancer, kidney disease and birth defects.
In addition, there has been a significant environmental impact on Navajo lands. According to Navajo President Joe Shirley, some uranium mines and milling sites were never properly closed or cleaned up. Residents near exposed areas have experienced sickness from radiation and pollution to the land and water surrounding their homes. This resulted in a tribal decision in 2005 to ban all uranium mining and milling on Navajo lands, but as the cost of uranium rises, companies have been knocking on the Navajo Nation’s door.
Efforts to Expand RECA
The Navajo Nation Dependents of Uranium Workers Committee has led a grassroots effort in recent years to aid the children of Navajo uranium miners who suffer ongoing effects related to radiation exposure. This group claims that many Navajo people who would otherwise be eligible for RECA coverage cannot get the help they deserve because the medical records from 50 or more years ago they need as proof no longer exist.
In past meetings with the Navajo nation about the continued effects of uranium mining, U.S. Senator Tom Udall has stated that “he is committed to continuing a dialogue on the effects of uranium mining on Navajo people and to seek justice for those who have been harmed.” His recently proposed amendments to RECA could benefit many members of the Navajo nation.
In addition to adding areas of coverage and including post-1971 workers, the RECA amendments could help the Navajo by allocating funds for further research on the impact of radiation exposure to workers, their families and communities. They could also allow RECA claimants to use affidavits in place of non-existent records and grant more compensation and medical benefits to eligible victims.
Respect and Support
Navajo President Joe Shirley continues to fight for RECA amendments, a moratorium on uranium mining in the U.S. and help with addressing the reservation environmental issues. The first step in compensating the Navajo people exposed to radiation and uranium activity who need help today would be for Congress to pass the proposed amendments, which are currently awaiting a hearing before the Senate or House Judiciary Committee.
Source: http://knowledgebase.findlaw.com/kb/2010/Oct/145201.html and “Yellow Dirt. An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed”, written by Judy Pasternak, Sept. 2010, Free Press. 317 pp. ISBN 978-1-4165-9482-6
For more information look at the Navajo Justice Page at: http://www.umich.edu/~snre492/sdancy.html
Navajo Attitudes Toward the Resource. In the Navajo creation story, there is mention of uranium. Uranium - called "cledge" - is from the underworld, and is to be left in the ground. According to the creation story, the Navajo were given a choice between yellow corn pollen and uranium. In Navajo belief, the yellow corn pollen possesses the positive elements of life. The pollen is prayed for and carried in medicine bags. Uranium was thought of as an element of the underworld that should remain in the earth. When uranium was released from the ground, Navajos believed it would become a serpent. Evil, death and destruction were seen as the problems the Navajo would face. These problems have become reality to the Navajo since mining began.