IF YOU POISON US: URAMIUM AND NATIVE AMERICANS, Peter H. Eichstaedt, Red Crane Books, 2008 Rosina Street, Suite B, Santa Fe, NM, 87505, 1994. 263 pages, source notes, index, bibliography, map, photos. $19.95 hardcover, 1-878610-40-6
It is astonishing and disheartening that AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Soceity) does not carry this book, which should be read by every Native student, and certainly sponsored by such an organization as AISES. It is published by a small company, not easy to find. The book tells the story of what Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh calls " the story of a far greater massacre than Wounded Knee, albeit a technical, medical, and ultimately legal massacre afflicting the Navajo Nation and inflicted by the federal govrnment. It is another tragfedy of the nuclear age, crying to heaven for justice." Actually, it afflicts the Hopi and several puevlos as well, and since the uranium mine and mill tailings and other radioactive environmental disasters are timebombs active for tens of thousands of years, just who may be ultimately affected in the southwest is not presently clear. Basically all who depend on the acquifers and rivers that pass through the very large area -- with Indians in the front lines, and Navajos making up the majority of those already dead and dying. The uranium boom, and the deaths and long-lasting environmental hazards, were created entirely by the U.S. government, which wanted tyhe uranium for weapons of mass destduction, was the only customer, and was the sole guarantor of safety for the workers.
Some 1200 uramium mines were dug on and around the Navajo reservation, using mainly Navajo miners for the most hazardous and low-paying work. Lawsuits -- all ultimately unsuccessful though they would seem to be sure things under the Federal Tort Claims Act -- were filed on the behalf of many cancer-ridden miners and their surviving families. These produced much of the evidence which -- while not sufficient to override judges in the pockets of the energy corporations -- did suffice evntually to get a compensation act through Congress. Evidence gathered for the lawsuit proves indisputably that the U.S. government was aware of hazards to the miners and did nothing to warn any of the Navajos or to enforce any kind of safety measure on the mine owners, which might have reduced the profits a little. Then, too, the U.S. government was interested in these Navajo miners and their families as guinea pigs to the effects of prolonged exposure to various radionuclides in dust and water.
Since it was proven the govenrment knew the hazard and the relatively simple, inexpensive methods to reduce it it could have enforced on its mining-company suppliers, the government's case rested entirely on something called government "discretionary function" meaning that if it chooses, it can refuse to protect or warn against dangers it is aware of in actions it is the cause of. Judges all up the line bought this argument, although they have not done so in countless successful tort claims brought by non-Indians, including some involving uranium processing radiation health damages and deaths.
The Congressional reparations act put the U.S. Justice Department in charge of administering the claims payments. The Justice Department had fought like rabid dogs against the earlier victims' lawsuits, and like rabid dogs against the Congressional passage of very late remediation. Dog, even rabid dog, is too good a word for what the filthy scum such as Helene Goldberg (in charge of stalling and refusing compensation payments) are doing now. The Justice Department uses a variety of disgusting tactics, such as refusing to recognize traditional Navajo marriages (in one case, an actual official marriage certificate was rejected because someone forgot to fill out where the marriage took place), demanding that hospital records be "certified" (an unheard of process), and posing medical tests that the Navajo IHS says are difficult to carry out and frightening to elderly traditional people, as well as ineffective to measure the damages. Payment for these tests has to be by the Navajo people ($200 apiec, plus $100 to travel hundreds of miles to where they are given and stay over night) and nation, and is accomplished only by diverting badly-needed and scarce health funding from other health care needs. All of the requirements not only take endless time but cost lots of money, which the poor families -- and the tribe, and the IHS -- don't have. The treatment of these dying people and their destitute surviving families by every part of the U.S. government, but especially the U.S. Justice Department and the federal judiciary, engenders such disgust and loathing I cannot write of it. Hundreds have died, and thousands more will. The government could have prevented most of it, by enforcing on the mining companies the safety standards its own experts called for in many studies of Colorado Plateau uranium mining.
Only Navajo, where the mines were unvintilated shaft are covered by the injury remedial payments from Congress. Acoma and Laguna pueblo workers worked at the huge open-pit Jackpile mine are not covred. Nither are the many Indian workers in theseveral huge unraium processing mills of thye Colorado Plateau. Government studies show the millers to have been exposed to more radioactive rock dusts during the processing. Recently when one of the old mills was torn down a vast amount of yellowcake (highly poisonous processed urainium dust) was found to have percolated between two roofs on a building over the years of operation -- indicating vast amounts of poisonous dust in the working environment of the millers, confirming Indian witness descriptions of working cxonditions. Death statistics have not been gathered for the millers, but early government studies show that about twice as many of them were getting lung cancers -- the only injury considered -- as miners.
How many won't ever be known. One of the causes of radiation death is housing. The mines and mills produced radioactive tailings. Uranium was removed, but other radionuclides -- some quite deadly, and water-soluble, som that give off radon gas -- were left. In isolated locations of the mines, people built homes, schools, clinics from these materials -- contaminated sandstone blocks, and fine sande and gravel. Radioactivity levels in such houses are 5 or more times normal. Villages have long had traditional outdoor community ovens, made of mortared rock. These, too, are often radioactive.
In the small Navajo communities in Monument Valley, and in Shiprock, children play on thse piles of radioactive waste. Sheepherders ride up twice a day to get a good view. Abandoned small old mines have been converted to corrals and hunting camps. The people in these isolated locations are not sophisticated. Young Navajos employed by the tribe on reclamation and data-gathering projects find it difficult to explain what the problems are. They use the concept of steam to try to explain the deadly invisibles, but say that elders, thinking of the steam of sweat lodges, aren't alarmed by the idea that rocks, sand, gravel may be giving off steam.
What is most worrisome about the radioactive remnants of som 1200 mines is water. Some of the radioactive materials in tailings and waste are water-soluble and are leaching into the deep water tables that serve the desert peoples. Open pit mines fill with water, which seeps down. There has been one spill in the 1970's of very highly contaminated water into the Rio Puerco, that is the main water source for many isolated Navajo herder families (and their sheep). Wild desert animals and birds consider the open pits like any desert waterhole, but th water is highly radioactive.
The only solution found for huge piles of tailings -- 60 and 75 acres -- and mill waste has been to cover them with supposedly impermeable layers of clay, rock and dirt, to keep rain from leaching the radioactive minerals down into the water table. But tough desert salt bush is already flourishing on newly-covered waste piles, breaking through the supposedly impermeable covering, and letting in the rain. And to suppose this "solution" could hold for thousands of years is folly. Radioactives are already showing up in some deep water tables, and travelling to nearby rivers, too.
Laguna and Acoma pueblo miners working at the huge open-pit Jackpile mine are not covered by the belated and difficult to receive government compensation. The thory is that open pit mining conditions don't pose the hazard of the closed, unventilated shaft mines. But these miners were subjected to very dusty working conditions, in the countless explosions and continual rock-crushing. Both radiation damag and silicosis have been causing deaths among them, though the studies and documentation of the Navajo closed-shaft kminers has not been done.
Manuel Pina, Acoma Arizona University professor, has a further perspective on the damage done by the Jackpile Mine. The huge enterprise, which operatd for 30 years, before abandoning the radioactive pit, provided the first real money economy -- sateady wages as miners -- for residents of nearby Acoma and Laguna pueblos. As wages increasd, so did what are called social problems. Drinking had been minor, with the mine wages it became very widespread.Spouse and child abuse, nonexistent before, now are a big problem. The statistics parallel the uranium production employment. The peak production years were the peak abuse years. amd p[eak years for dropouts at nearby schools. It was more lucrative to be a uranium miner at $10/hr than to stay in school," Pino says. The skill the acquired was useless when the mines shut down and the industry collapsed. Now thre is ar several generations of unemployed miners with no education or skills, and a culture has been virtually destroyed. As miners bought telvisions and cars, a foreign and once-distant culture entered their homes.In just one generation, English entirely replaced the Keresan language at Laguna. The lawyers, doctors, and government types have paid no attention to that more subtle, less physical, form of destruction, as well as doing essentially no health checkups or documentations for Jackpile open pit miners.
Native students -- especially science students -- should read this book, because wherever your reservation is, they (these same people never change over generations) may come around wanting something out of your land sometime, with promises of jobs and whatever. No matter what assurances are given, or what scientific common sense of the time tells you, think of this situation that has been caused to kill thousands of Indians now, and threatens their land and water essentially forever, and has had extremely destructive cultural effects, and plan accordingly. Even though you are not going to see this book in your college science classes, much less "Native American Studies" and for sure, it's not going to be studied in any ecology or environmental studies classes or nature conservancy type groups, buy, read and keep this book for permanent reference. Reviewed by Paula Giese
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Last Updated: Tuesday, April 02, 1996 - 9:18:04 PM