Uranium mining and the Navajo people

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For the book published in 2006, see The Navajo People and Uranium Mining.
A drum of yellowcake
Shiprock, New Mexico uranium mill aerial photo

After the end of World War II, the United States encouraged uranium mining production because of the nuclear arms race with the U.S.S.R., its opponent in the Cold War. Large uranium deposits were found on and near the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest, and private companies hired many Navajo employees to work the mines. Disregarding the known health risks imposed by exposure to uranium, the private companies and the United States Atomic Energy Commission failed to inform the Navajo workers about the dangers and to regulate the mining to minimize contamination. As more data was collected, they were slow to take appropriate action for the workers.

Studies provided data to show that the Navajo mine workers and numerous families on the reservation have suffered high rates of disease from environmental contamination, but for decades, industry and the government failed to regulate or improve conditions, or inform workers of the dangers. As high rates of illness began to occur, workers were often unsuccessful in court cases seeking compensation, and the states at first did not officially recognize radon illness. In 1990 the US Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, to settle such cases and provide needed compensation.

Despite efforts made in cleaning up uranium sites, significant problems stemming from the legacy of uranium development still exist today on the Navajo Nation and in the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Hundreds of abandoned mines have not been cleaned up and present environmental and health risks in many communities.[1] The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 4000 mines with documented uranium production, and another 15,000 locations with uranium occurrences in 14 western states,[2] most found in the Four Corners area and Wyoming.[3] The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act is a United States environmental law that amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to establish health and environmental standards for the stabilization, restoration, and disposal of uranium mill waste.[4]


In 1948, The United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) announced it would be the sole purchaser of any uranium mined in the United States, to cut off dependence on imported uranium. The AEC would not mine the uranium; it contracted with private mining companies for the product.[5] The subsequent mining boom following the announcement led to the creation of thousands of mines, with 92% of all western mines located on the Colorado Plateau.[6] The Navajo Nation encompasses portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, making their reservation a key area for uranium mining; it had more than 1000 mines in the reservation.[6] Between 3,000 and 5,000 Navajo people worked in the uranium mines on their land from 1944 to 1986.[7] As work was scarce on and near the reservation, many Navajo men would travel miles to work in a mine, sometimes taking their families with them.[5]

Between 1944 and 1989, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were mined from the mountains and plains.[8] In 1950, the US Public Health service made a massive study of uranium miners, leading to the first publication of a statistical correlation between cancer and uranium mining, released in 1962.[6] The federal government finally regulated the standard amount of radon in mines, setting the level at .3 WL on January 1, 1969.[5] But, environmental regulation could not repair the damage already suffered. Navajo miners contracted lung cancer at much higher rates than the rest of the population, and they have suffered higher rates of other lung diseases caused by breathing in radon.[5]

Private companies had resisted regulation through lobbying Congress and state legislatures. In 1990, the United States Congress finally passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), granting reparations for those affected by the radiation. The act was amended in 2000 to address criticisms and problems with the original legislation.[6]

Church Rock uranium mill spill[edit]

United Nuclear Corporation Church Rock Uranium Mill

On July 16, 1979, the tailings pond at United Nuclear Corporation's uranium mill in Church Rock, New Mexico, breached its dam. Over 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste and 93 millions of gallons of acidic, radioactive tailings solution and mine effluent flowed into the Puerco River, and contaminants traveled 80 miles (130 km) downstream to Navajo County, Arizona.[8] The flood backed up sewers, affected nearby aquifers and left stagnating, contaminated pools on the riverside.[9][10][11]

More radioactivity was released in the spill than the in the Three Mile Island accident that occurred four months earlier,[12] and it has been reported as the largest radioactive accident in U.S. history.

With latent and English-only attempts to notify the largely Navajo public populace in accordance with a state contingency plan, local residents were not immediately aware of the toxic danger.[12] The locals were accustomed to using the riverside for recreation and herb gathering. Residents who waded in the acidic water went to the hospital complaining of burning feet and were misdiagnosed with heat stroke. Sheep and cattle died en masse.[10] In 1981, the state and federal government ended the assistance of trucked-in water which they had provided, and farmers had little choice but to resume use of the river for watering livestock and crops.[13]

The Navajo Nation asked the governor of New Mexico to request disaster assistance from the US government and have the site declared a disaster area, but the governor refused.[12] This limited the amount of disaster relief the Navajo Nation received.

Health studies on exposure to uranium[edit]

Concerned over the adverse health consequences which Europeans experienced from uranium mines, William Bale and John Harley conducted an independent study. Their work led the US government to start the United States Public Health Study (USPHS) on uranium mine workers. Bale and Harley’s studies focused on identifying the level of radon in mines and assessing any correlation with disease, specifically lung cancer. Radon, they found, can attach to mine dust, which would be inhaled and subsequently concentrated in the lung tissue. Because of this action, workers breathed radon gas at concentrations up to 100 times higher than the amount of radon gas indicated.[6] The USPHS was subsequently launched in 1951, with two goals: to identify uranium mine environment exposures, and to conduct a medical evaluation of the miners.[6]

Ethical concerns[edit]

The USPHS study raised ethical concerns. The Navajo workers were rarely notified of the possible dangers the USPHS was studying.[5] As late as 1960, the USPHS medical consent form failed to inform miners about the possible health risks of working in the mine.[6] The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, created in 1994 to explore the treatment of the workers, said: “’Had they been better informed, they could have sought help in publicizing the fact that working conditions in the mines were extremely hazardous, which might have resulted in some mines being ventilated earlier than they were."[6] The USPHS failed to abide by a centerpiece of Nuremberg Code (1947), by failing to have informed consent of the subjects of a research study.[5]

In 1952, the USPHS issued two reports, reporting exceptionally high concentrations of radon, even higher than those found in European mines years before.[6] Medically, there was little evidence found of sickness. But, the latency from exposure to disease, also found among the European cases, explains why there were few medical effects observed at this early stage.[6] In a private meeting between the AEC and the USPHS, the AEC informed the USPHS scientists that not only could the high radon levels eventually cause cancer, but proper ventilation of the mines could avoid the problem.[5] The government failed to take any action on this finding.[5]

Continued impact and research[edit]

The USPHS continued to study the uranium miners, eventually including 4,000 American Indian and non-Indian underground uranium miners. They added miners in 1951, 1953, 1954, 1957 and 1960.[6] In 1962, the USPHS published the first account of the effects of radon exposure. It found a significant correlation between radon exposure and cancer.[5] Additional studies were published in 1968, 1973, 1976, 1981, 1987, 1995 and 1997; these demonstrated linear relationships between radon exposure and lung cancer, a latency period of about 20 years between radon exposure and health effects, and noted that, while smoking tobacco caused a shorter latency period for the development of cancer, it did not fully explain the relationship between radon and cancer.[6] Similar reports found instances of other diseases such as lung cancer, pneumoconiosis, tuberculosis, chronic obstructive respiratory disease, as well as diseases of the blood.[6] One study conducted in 2000 regarding the number of cancer cases among Navajo uranium mine workers concluded that the miners were 28.6 times more likely to contract the disease than the study's control group.[14]

Many miners died from radiation-related illnesses. A 1995 report published by American Public Health Association found: “excess mortality rates for lung cancer, pneumoconioses and other respiratory diseases, and tuberculosis for Navajo uranium miners. Increasing duration of exposure to underground uranium mining was associated with increased mortality risk for all three diseases… The most important long-term mortality risks for the Navajo uranium miners continue to be lung cancer and pneumoconioses and other nonmalignant respiratory diseases.”[15]

Over the decades, Navajo miners extracted some four million tons of uranium ore, which was primarily used by the U.S. government to make nuclear weapons. Some miners, unaware of the adverse health effects, carried contaminated rocks and tailings from local mines to build their family home. In 2009, those homes began to be demolished and rebuilt under a new government program, which involved temporarily relocating occupants until the homes could be rebuilt.[16]

United States government response[edit]

Following the publication of the reports in the early 1950s, some private contractors attempted to properly ventilate their mines. The states of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah established minimum standards for radon concentrations (Dawson and Madsen 2007). But, the AEC was lax in enforcement of the rules; AEC commissioners did not establish national radon standards at the time the studies were released.[6] The AEC said it had no authority to regulate uranium, but it regulated beryllium. The health and activist communities have criticized the AEC for its failure to take action related to the scientific reports. The agency repressed the reports.[6]

Government and uranium industry personnel were privy to the information, but it as not until the 1960s that workers were informed of the environmental dangers.[6] The government response continued to be slow. Regulation of the uranium industry was first debated in Congress in 1966, but little progress was made. Journalists began to publish stories detailing the illnesses of uranium miners, giving them public attention.[5] In 1969, Congress set the standard radon level for mines at .3 WL.[5]

Navajo miners began to file lawsuits to seek compensation for health damages, but often lost in court. But the publicity, presentation of harmful evidence, and victim testimony gave support to their cause.[6]Ted Kennedy (D-MA) was the first senator to propose a Radiation Compensation bill, with the goal of avoiding lawsuits and compensating victims fully, though it was defeated in 1979. Orrin Hatch's (R-UT) 1981 compensation bill was met with a similar fate, and his attempt in 1983 did not reach the Senate floor.[6]

Progress toward legislation[edit]

In 1989, Orrin Hatch, supported by fellow Utah Representative Wayne Owens (D-UT), sponsored the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on October 15, 1990.[6] The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA): “Offers an apology and monetary compensation to individuals who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases following their exposure to radiation released during above-ground atmospheric nuclear weapons tests or, following their occupational exposure to radiation while employed in the uranium industry during the build-up to the Cold War." [17] The United States Department of Justice established regulations for implementing the act, related to individuals eligible for payment, and guidelines for identification, including marriage licenses, birth certificates and official documents, some of which the Navajo did not possess. In some cases, the government did not recognize individual's documentation as legitimate.[6]

With additional data from the studies by the Public Health Service (PHS), in 2000 the act was amended to correct shortcomings: “The RECA Amendments of 2000 broadened the scope of eligibility for benefits to include two new occupationally exposed claimant categories (uranium mill workers and uranium ore transporters), expanding both the time periods and geographic areas covered, and adding compensable diseases, thus allowing more individuals to be eligible to qualify.” [18] As of November 17, 2009, the government has paid claims of 21,810 people, denied 8,789, and paid $1,455,257,096 in reparations.[19]

Navajo treatment, impact and response[edit]

Beginning in the 1960s, uranium miners were beginning to become ill with cancer at increasing rates.[5] The state of Utah did not recognize radiation exposure at the time as a category of illness, making workers compensation unattainable for many of the sick Navajo (Dawson and Madsen 2007). Private industry's treatment of the Navajo workers was poor, according to recent standards: companies failed to educate workers on precautionary measures, did not install sufficient engineering controls, such as adequate ventilation; and did not provide sufficient safety equipment to protect workers to the known dangers related to the mines.[20] The Navajo were never told of the radiation effects, and did not have a word for it in their language. Many Navajo did not speak English and trusted the uranium companies to have their interests in mind.[20] Navajo workers and residents have felt betrayed as the results of the studies became known, as well as the long delays by companies and the US government to try to prevent the damage, and to pay compensation.[20] Lung cancer became so prevalent among the Navajo people that working in uranium mines was banned on Navajo lands in 2005.[7]

Allegations of racism[edit]

White workers also faced different conditions: Navajo workers were forced to enter the mine directly after a detonation, while it was filled with dust and smoke. However, the white workers were able to stay behind.[20] Navajo miners were paid less than miners from off-reservation, well below minimum wage.[21][22] Until radon exposure safety standards were imposed by the Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz over the objections of the Atomic Energy Commission and the uranium mining industry in June, 1967,[8][23] mines lacked ventilation, exposing workers to radon.

Widows of mine workers met to discuss their grief; they started a grassroots movement that eventually reached the Congressional floor.[5]

The Church Rock uranium mill spill raised claims that race was a factor in the federal government's paying little attention to the disaster:

When there was a relatively minor problem at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the entire attention of the Nation was focused on this location and the Federal and State assistance brought to bear to deal with it was extraordinary. When the largest release of radioactive material in the history of the United States occurs in Navajo country, however, the attention paid to it by the Federal and State authorities is minimal at best.[24]

Enduring impact[edit]

Many residents of the Navajo Nation have anxiety and concerns about the future because of large amounts of radioactive waste remaining. One Navajo Elder explains: “We, the elderlies, that resides around here don't know what was good and worst about the uranium. There were several deaths in this area that was affected by radiation or cancers. We need help. I lost my wife last year [to cancer] and now I am 87 years. My wife would have been 70 years old which made a lot of difference. I am lonely and can't get anywhere without her help. I was hurted and miserable."[20] The number of cancer cases has continued to rise because of these conditions, as water, air and ground generally have been affected. In areas near uranium mills, residents suffer stomach cancer at rates 15 times those of the national level. In some areas, the frequency gets as high as 200 times the national average.[8] Hundreds of abandoned uranium mines with exposed tailings remain unremediated in the Navajo Nation area posing a contamination hazard.[25] Near the former uranium mills, water contamination and contamination of rocks which many residents used to build their houses, continue to be problems.[26]

A 1995 report published by American Public Health Association found: “excess mortality rates for lung cancer, pneumoconioses and other respiratory diseases, and tuberculosis for Navajo uranium miners. Increasing duration of exposure to underground uranium mining was associated with increased mortality risk for all three diseases… The most important long-term mortality risks for the Navajo uranium miners continue to be lung cancer and pneumoconioses and other nonmalignant respiratory diseases.” That is to say, not stomach cancer, which the Navajo people naturally have a higher rate of experiencing than the national US average.[15]

Clean-up efforts[edit]

Since 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, has been mapping areas affected with radioactivity. In 2007, they compiled an atlas of the abandoned uranium mills in order to rid the area of nuclear waste.[27] In 2008, the EPA implemented a five-year cleanup plan, focusing on the most pressing issues: contaminated water and structures. The EPA estimates that 30% of all Navajo people lack access to uncontaminated drinking water.[27]

The EPA is targeting 500 abandoned uranium mills as another part of their five-year cleanup plan, with the goal of ridding the area of nuclear waste.[27] Its priority was identification of contaminated water sources and structures; many of the latter have been destroyed and removed. In 2011, it completed a multi-year project of removing 20,000 cubic yards of contaminated earth out of the reservation, near the Skyline Mine, to controlled storage on the plateau.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pasternak, Judy (2006-11-19). "A peril that dwelt among the Navajos". Los Angeles Times. 
  2. ^ U.S. EPA, Radiation Protection, “Uranium Mining Waste” 30 August 2012 Web.4 December 2012, http://www.epa.gov/radiation/tenorm/uranium.html
  3. ^ Uranium Mining and Extraction Processes in the United States Figure 2.1. Mines and Other Locations with Uranium in the Western U.S. http://www.epa.gov/radiation/docs/tenorm/402-r-08-005-voli/402-r-08-005-v1-ch2.pdf
  4. ^ Laws We Use (Summaries):1978 - Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act(42 USC 2022 et seq.), EPA, retrieved December 16, 2012 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Brugge, Doug, Timothy Benally, and Esther Yazzie-Lewis. The Navajo People and Uranium Mining, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Dawson, Susan E, and Gary E Madsen. "Uranium Mine Workers, Atomic Downwinders, and the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act." In Half Lives & Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War, pp. 117-143. Santa Fe: School For Advanced Research, 2007)
  7. ^ a b Fettus, Geoffry H.; Matthew G. Mckinzie (March 2012). "Nuclear Fuel's Dirty Beginnings: Environmental Damage and Public Health Risks From Uranium Mining in the American West" (PDF). National Resources Defense Council. National Resources Defense Council. Retrieved 29 April 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c d Pasternak, Judy (November 19, 2006). "A peril that dwelt among the Navajos". Los Angeles Times.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Pasternak" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Pasternak" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  9. ^ Doug Brugge, PhD, MS, Jamie L. deLemos, MS and Cat Bui, BS, "The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities", American Journal of Public Health, September 2007, Vol 97, No. 9, pp. 1595-1600, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2006.103044 PDF version
  10. ^ a b Brendan Giusti, "Radiation Spill in Church Rock Still Haunts 30 Years Later", The Daily Times (Farmington, New Mexico), July 16, 2009, Section: Local
  11. ^ Ferenc Morton Szasz, Larger Than Life: New Mexico in the Twentieth Century, UNM Press, 2006, pp.82-83, ISBN 0-8263-3883-6
  12. ^ a b c Brugge, D., J. L. DeLemos, and C. Bui. "The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities." American Journal of Public Health 97.9 (2007): 1595-600
  13. ^ Chris Shuey, MPH "The Puerco River: Where Did the Water Go?", Southwest Research and Information Center, 1986
  14. ^ Brugge, Doug; Rob Goble (September 2002). "The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People". American Journal of Public Health. Retrieved 29 April 2014. 
  15. ^ a b Roscoe, Robert J, Deddens James A, Albert Salvan, and Teressa M Schnorr. "Mortality Among Navajo Uranium Miners," American Journal of Public Health, 1995: 535-541.
  16. ^ Dan Frosch (July 26, 2009). "Uranium Contamination Haunts Navajo Country". New York Times. 
  17. ^ United States Department of Justice. Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, About the Program. November 6, 2009. http://www.justice.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/about.htm (accessed October 28, 2009).
  18. ^ United States Government Accountability Office. "United States Government Accountability Office." September 7, 2007. www.gao.gov/new.items/d071037r.pdf - (accessed October 28, 2009).
  19. ^ Department of Justice Civil Division, "Radiation Exposure Compensation System", Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, 17 November 2009 (accessed November 17, 2009).
  20. ^ a b c d e Dawson, Susan E. "Navajo Uranium Workers and the Effects of Occupational Illnesses: A Case Study," Human Organization Vol. 51, number 4, 1992: 389-397.
  21. ^ Eichstaedt 1994, p. 38.
  22. ^ Kuletz, Valerie (1998). The Tainted Desert. New York: Routledge. p. 25. 
  23. ^ Eichstaedt, Peter (1994). If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books. pp. 71, 74. 
  24. ^ Mill Tailings Dam Break at Church Rock, New Mexico, US Congress, House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, October 22, 1979 
  25. ^ Diep, Francie (December 30, 2010). "Abandoned Uranium Mines: An "Overwhelming Problem" in the Navajo Nation". Scientific American. 
  26. ^ "Uranium contamination at Navajo Reservation", New York Times, 27 July 2009
  27. ^ a b c United States Environmental Protection Agency. Addressing Uranium Contamination in Navajo Nation. October 7, 2009. http://www.epa.gov/region09/superfund/navajo-nation/index.html (accessed November 17, 2009)
  28. ^ Felicia Fonseca, "Navajo woman helps prompt uranium mine cleanup", Associated Press, carried in Houston Chronicle, 5 September 2011, accessed 5 October 2011

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