With every light switch flipped, every faucet turned, and every car driven, humans consume more of the Earth’s precious and limited natural resources – often unsustainably. While we must work to curb our ever-expanding environmental footprint, we cannot neglect past environmental transgressions, especially as their effects continue to impact lives. One such transgression exists in the Navajo Nation – a region spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah – where the native people have lived for decades on land contaminated by pollution from abandoned uranium mines. However, these mines represent a deeper social issue – one of environmental justice, as the Navajo people, a minority group, have suffered a “disproportionate burden of costs” while others profit (Cox and Pezullo). The environmental injustice endured by the Navajo people is rooted in a history of discrimination, has extended to present day, and looms ever more ominously under the current administration.
Uranium mining in the Navajo Nation dates back to 1944. From the end of World War II and into the Cold War Era, uranium, a necessary component in the fledgling nuclear program, was in high demand. So, private mining corporations swarmed the uranium rich Navajo Nation, bringing with them new mining jobs for the Navajo people. From 1944 until 1986 when the final uranium mine was closed, a total of 30 million tons of uranium ore was extracted, much of which was sold to the United States Atomic Energy Commission, the only purchaser of uranium ore mined from the Navajo Nation until 1966 (Landry). However, after being shut down, uranium mines were abandoned without proper seals or caps, leaving 521 uranium mines open to local contaminate air and water (Arnold).
As stated by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, uranium is “a naturally-occurring radioactive metal [that] may cause adverse health effects related to both its radiological and chemical properties.” The milling process further exacerbates the contaminant effects of uranium as the chemical process which separates the uranium from rock leaves behind mill tailings which “are rich in the chemicals and radioactive materials that were not removed, such as radium and thorium.” These radioactive materials, have been shown to have detrimental health impacts on exposed populations, particularly in the kidney and urinary systems (Uranium). More studies are currently underway to more clearly understand the effects of uranium exposure on human health, for example, the Navajo Birth Cohort Study. Headed by Maria Welch of the Southwest Research Information Center, the study of 599 has found that 27% of participants have elevated levels of uranium in their urine, a staggering statistic in comparison to the 5% of the general US population. Another alarming statistic reports that cancer rates in the Navajo Nation have doubled from 1970 to 1990 (Morales). Health risks due to uranium exposure are a real and present danger to the people of the Navajo Nation.
Not only is the generation of men who suffered direct exposure as they worked in the uranium mines and mills affected, but also the women who came into daily contact with radioactive particles as they washed their husband’s clothes, their children who often played in pools contaminated by radiation, and even future generations who breathe contaminated air, drink contaminated water, and live in homes built from contaminated materials (Arnold). The health and wellbeing of over 173,000 people is at stake, with those most affected residing near the 4 main clusters of Uranium mines, in the Four Corners area: Tse Tah, Red Valley and Cove, Ariz., and Monument Valley (Arizona Rural Policy Institute) (Landry). Contamination from abandoned uranium mines has pervaded deep into the lives of the Navajo people, bringing with it not only health risks but also a sense of distrust towards federal government.
From a historical standpoint, distrust towards the American government is warranted. The Navajo Nation, along with many other Native American tribes, has suffered a history of maltreatment at the hands of the predominantly Caucasian American federal government. Tensions escalated alongside restrictions on Native American rights as America entered the era of colonial expansion, manifesting in 1864 when over 9,000 innocent Navajo people were forced on the 18 day “Long Walk” from their homes to the Bosque Redondo Reservation at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, located over 300 miles away from their homeland. Only 7,304 Navajo were released in 1868 when a treaty agreement was signed, releasing the surviving natives from captivity but not returning full ownership of their former lands (Navajo Internment Ends). The Navajo people have endured a history of persecution, stigmatization, and discrimination which, unfortunately, continues to impact current generations as well.
Historical discrimination which established the Navajo people as a marginalized minority group has heavily influenced both the Navajo people’s socioeconomic position. Of the 173,667 people living on the reservation, 96.1% of which are either American Indian or Alaska Native in ethnicity, a disproportionate number face economic instability. Average per capita income in the Navajo nation is only $10,685, under half of the average in the State of Arizona, $25,680. Poverty levels are an extremely high 38% in the Navajo Nation, over twice as high as Arizona which has a poverty rate of 18% (Arizona Rural Policy Institute). The Navajo people, like many other Native American tribes living on reservations and African American populations, are confined to a cycle of poverty heavily influenced by geographic location. These groups often live in communities lacking basic infrastructure like gas stations, groceries, and hair salons, leading them to venture into other communities to partake in these services (Peralta). Money flows outward, and the local economy is further weakened in a positive feedback loop that perpetuates poverty in marginalized ethnic groups.
Not only are these groups marginalized financially, they also lack recognition in politics. Only three presidents have visited Native American territory in American history, the most recent being Barack Obama’s visit to the Standing Rock tribe in North Dakota in 2014 (Zezima). In the words of founder George McGraw of DIGDEEP, an organization working to provide clean drinking water in the Navajo Nation, “This is a community that has found itself voiceless” both economically and politically (Morales). Lacking the financial resources to provide for health care necessitated by uranium exposure and the political pull needed to lobby for their people’s wellbeing, the Navajo’s lack of voice extends beyond economics and politics to their health outcomes, an issue further complicated by a legacy of purposeful historic dissimulation of pertinent information.
In this regard, parallels can be drawn from Navajo uranium contamination to the Tuskegee Experiments and lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. In the forty-year-long Tuskegee Experiment, more officially known as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male which began in 1932, 399 men with syphilis were purposefully withheld treatment even after penicillin, the drug of choice, became available. Though they were given free medical trials, meals, and burial insurance, informed consent was absent from the experiment and patients were kept ignorant of highly relevant personal health circumstances (Tuskegee Timeline). In 2016 when government officials allowed water from the Flint River to corrode city pipes in Flint, Michigan, despite full knowledge that the corrosion was introducing lead and other toxins into the water supply (Yu and Shapiro). Though seemingly disjointed – one an officially conducted study from the 1930s and the other a policy scandal from under a year ago – the health injustices in Tuskegee and Flint share a commonality with the uranium mining-affected Navajo Nation in that consequences primarily affected marginalized groups kept deliberately ignorant of vital information directly relevant to health outcomes.
When uranium mining first commenced in the 1940s, the Navajo did not even have a word meaning “radioactivity” (Arnold). Rather, many Navajo saw the influx of uranium mining as a blessing, an opportunity for work that did not require them to travel away from home. Sadly, this blessing effectually acted more as a curse, bringing forth many years of contamination and many attendant negative health outcomes. In fact, jobs offered in uranium mines qualify as a form of economic blackmail, perpetuating the concept that low-income communities must choose between “financial worth and environmental protection” when seeking employment (Cox and Pezullo). George Tutt, former uranium miner, recounted his initial reaction to the influx of uranium mines, saying, “We thought we were very fortunate,” but added that “we were not told, ‘Later on this will affect you in this way'” (Arnold). Lack of transparency has repeated itself time and time again in American history, primarily impacting already marginalized minority population groups and contributing to a legacy of distrust and pessimism towards both the US government and the greater American society.
Looking forward, we must find methods and resources to remediate the environmental health issue of abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation. Such efforts are already underway, undertaken by a diverse set of organizations, ranging from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to Anadarko Petroleum to NGOs like DIGDEEP, an organization working to build clean water wells for those living on the reservation (Morales). Recently, the United States federal government and two subsidiaries of the Freeport-McMoRan mining company, Cyprus Amax Minerals Co. and Western Nuclear Inc., reached a $600 million settlement agreement with the Navajo Nation. The mining companies will clean up 94 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo reservation, with the United States government contributing $335 million to a trust account to help fund site evaluations, cost analyses, and cleanup of the mines. (Landry). While the costs of uranium mine clean up are high, no monetary can, nor should, quantify decades spent by Navajo people surrounded by uranium mines, mills, and waste. However, about one third of mining companies from the time of uranium mining proliferation have either shut down or run out of money (Morales). With many of these companies unable to pay their due share in uranium cleanup efforts, it becomes a question of who will pay and when.
In this regard, the United States government has actively taken strides to address uranium contamination; in 2008, the EPA established a Five-Year Plan to confront contamination in the Navajo Nation and, in 2014, initiated another Five-Year Plan to continue the efforts of the original (United States Environmental Protection Agency). However, with the recent election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, the situation becomes ever more unclear, especially as he has publically called climate change a “hoax” and stocked his cabinet with climate change deniers, including Scott Pruitt who is to lead the EPA (Davenport and Lipton). In demonstrating a clear lack of regard towards environmental issues, Trump also disregards the populations most affected and further destabilizes their already precarious existence.
With over 160,000 abandoned hard rock mines contributing to negative health outcomes in the western United States, it is critical that we continue to endorse clean up initiatives and spread awareness about this issue (Morales). However, the best advice offered by the EPA in a fact sheet addressing the effect of uranium and radiation on health is to “eat a healthy diet,” “use drinking water from a regulated source,” “get regular cancer screenings,” and “REDUCE YOUR CONTACT” (United States Environmental Protection Agency). For impoverished and marginalized populations residing in the Navajo reservation, these seemingly intuitive tips are simply not feasible due to social, geographic, and financial limitations. The fact of the matter is, environmental injustices committed against the native people of the Navajo nation in the mid- to late-1900s have demonstrable health impact on local populations to this day and will continue to do so unless improvements are made in terms of intervention and remediation.
In the years to come, we must work to rectify uranium contamination in the Navajo Nation. Scientifically speaking, more studies can be conducted to better understand the full extent of the impact of uranium contamination on both local environment and residents, and new technologies focusing on the remediation of hard rock mines and contaminated locales should be further explored. The humanities and social sciences will be crucial in raising awareness of the issue at hand and in forming policies which will make intervention implementation both cost effective and feasible for the affected and often marginalized communities. Hard sciences, soft sciences, and humanities must coalesce to right the wrong committed against not only the Navajo Nation but against all communities facing environmental injustice.
Looking back, had humans not desired to use uranium to build atomic weapons to assert their nation’s dominance in the global sphere, perhaps the uranium would have remained safely embedded in the rocks of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Had humans informed mine and mill workers of the adverse health effects they and their families would face from exposure to radioactive dust and rays, perhaps workers would take more precautions or choose find other work. Had humans valued the lives of other humans equally, regardless of race, history, or socio-economic status, perhaps uranium mines would have been properly capped and covered instead of abandoned and left open to contaminate. In the years to come, we cannot allow our value systems to condone discriminatory policy and practice but rather we must unite seemingly disparate forms of human intelligence in defense of not only the marginalized, but mother earth herself.
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