Two miles south of Cameron, Arizona, a Navajo rancher, Larry Gordy, turns east onto an unpaved road heading away from the setting sun. The car bumps along the cracked earth and scrub brush on which his horses and cattle graze. He stops the car, steps out and begins to crunch fresh footprints into the dry ground with his old rodeo boots. Suddenly, he is dwarfed by a collection of crumbling concrete structures that seem utterly out of place in the middle of a desert.
What remains on his grazing land is an abandoned uranium mill and a dangerous reminder of the Cold War-era uranium mining industry that ravaged communities all across the Navajo Nation Reservation in the American Southwest. First came the jobs and an economic boom as thousands of Navajo men took to the mines to supply the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. But the long-term result for the Navajo has been environmental devastation.
A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council warns of the Navajo Nation as a case study in irresponsible nuclear resource extraction:
“For decades the Navajo Nation has been especially affected by boom-and-bust uranium mining. On Navajo land alone, nearly four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from 1944 to 1986; left behind were more than 500 abandoned uranium mines, four inactive uranium milling sites, a former dump site, and the widespread contamination of land and water. Only recently has the government attempted to assess and mitigate this contamination, but full reclamation of the land is unlikely.”
The New York Times reports that radioactivity at the mill site on Gordy’s land has been measured at “one million counts per minute, translating to a human dose that scientists say can lead directly to malignant tumors and other serious health damage.” Gordy played at the site as a kid, and he explains how special it felt to have his own playground in the desert. “Growing up in essentially a shack, it felt special to have something that big that could be mine.” He spent many nights camping among the crumbling concrete. Decades later, when he found that his childhood playhouse could have been poisoning him, he felt betrayed. “What is a reservation—it’s a P.O.W. camp. Now we’re prisoners of war, in a sense. You can’t live the way you used to anymore.”
This is an all-too-familiar story on the Navajo Nation. Most uranium mining companies went out of business well before they could be held responsible for the cleanup of their abandoned sites. The Navajo EPA has identified over 500 mine sites on the Reservation, though activist groups contend that the number is closer to 1,000. Since then, the Navajo EPA has prioritized those with the highest levels of gamma radiation and closest proximity to humans for the swiftest cleanup. So far, dozens have been closed off and surgically scraped of contaminated soil, but the process will ultimately take decades and hundreds of millions of additional dollars for completion.
Until recently, the uranium upgrader site near Gordy’s home stood little chance of being “reclaimed,” or properly cleaned up. Then, reporting in the Gallup Independent, a New Mexico newspaper, shed light on on the situation and catalyzed remediation efforts. An investigation revealed that the non-Navajo Babbitt ranching family was responsible for cleanup. The process has finally been set into motion. But this is just one site out of hundreds, and although Gordy says that he will be happy to see the problem dealt with, he knows that it will not improve life much for himself or his family. Whatever damage was done to him as a kid when he spent nights camped out among the ruins is likely permanent and could affect his health later on in life. Despite all that the uranium industry has done to his family and this region, he admits that he would take up a job in the mines if they ever reopened. Good pay would mean he could connect water and electricity to his family’s trailer, he could send his boys off to welding school and he could see his daughter, Nezhoni, leave for a university. Such are his dreams.
Our Valley of Death
Sickness and death still linger long after the mines have been closed.
More than a decade has passed since the last uranium was mined on Navajo land, but the death and disease it brought is far less removed. Over 30,000 sick Navajo miners have been compensated under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act that awards a cash sum to those who can prove that they are sick or dying from their time spent working in the mines.
Once a uranium worker in the Cameron region, David Neztsosie, 92, now suffers from respiratory illness related to his occupation. He has been compensated by RECA and lives with his second wife, Helen, in a small hogan (a traditional eight-sided home) near Tuba City, Arizona, where she cares for him and his increasingly demanding medical needs. However, his greatest suffering comes not from his illness but rather from the loss of his two young daughters many decades ago.
Neztsosie recalls returning home from the mines wearing his work suit covered in yellow uranium particulate, never knowing of the deadly consequences for those he loved. Navajo miners frequently exposed their family members to dangerous and sometimes deadly levels of radiation exposure on their person after long shifts. Others would bring yellow rocks from the mines for their children to play with or would bring jugs of drinking water into the deep mines to cool while they worked. In the case of Neztsosie’s daughters, their second-hand exposure cost them their lives. Both developed a disease of the peripheral nervous system known as “Navajo Neuropathy” and died before reaching high school. Both were wheelchair-bound and genetically deformed.
With the first documented case in 1959, the rise and subsequent fall of this disease that almost-exclusively affected Navajo children aligned with the boom and bust of the uranium industry on Navajo lands. A contributing factor to the gene mutation that causes Navajo Neuropathy is exposure to contamination and contaminated drinking water in utero or at an early age. The average life expectancy for a child with this disease is 10.
Additionally, various cancers of the kidneys, urinary tract, and lungs became common during and after the mining years. A Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study from 2000 found uranium miners to be 28.6 times more likely to develop lung cancer than the control population. The most common provable illnesses caused by exposure are respiratory. Fibrosis of the lung, pulmonary fibrosis, silicosis, pneumoconiosis and others are all considered to be radiation-induced and have affected tens of thousands of Navajo miners.
Esther Atene began working for Four Corners Healthcare shortly after her grandfather died of cancer caused by his exposure as a uranium miner. Four Corners works with retired miners to process their Radiation Exposure Compensation Act applications and then to provide government-funded in-home care to several hundred clients across the rural Navajo Nation. Atene said that this public-private partnership has proven lucrative simply due to the shear number of those still in need of RECA benefits. She alone has helped obtain compensation for over 50 miners in the Kayenta, Monument Valley and Four Corners regions. In a storage shed at her mother’s home, Atene keeps Rubbermaid boxes full of paperwork, chest X-rays and pulmonary function test results needed for the process. She explains that most of the boxes display names of miners who have since died.
RECA has been a step in the right direction, but no cash sum can make up for the death of a father, mother, brother or friend. A New York Times article from 1993 reads:
The 1990 law was a gesture by the [U.S.] Government to acknowledge its complicity in the greatest irony of the cold war: that the principal victims of the United States’ development of a nuclear arsenal were Americans, not Russians. “The Congress apologizes on behalf of the nation to individuals and their families for hardships they endured,” the law read in part.
One woman who is keenly aware of this fact is Elsie Mae Begay. At her home in Monument Valley, Utah, she explains how she grew up living in a tent near the mine where her father worked. She lived so close to the mine that explosions from the site would rain smalls rocks and dust down onto her canvas home. One by one, she began losing family members and friends to diseases like cancer and kidney failure. She did not know why this was happening until decades later. By then, she had buried two young sons. Lewis and Leonard both died of cancer at 25 and 42, respectively.
Begay cries as she lists off nearly a dozen other family members that she has lost to illnesses she believes were caused by exposure from the mines. Not only miners were affected, but also women and children who played near the Skyline Mine that sits on a cliffside overlooking her family’s trailers and hogans. Waste from the mine has stained the mesa and left much of the area radioactively hot. Several of their homes have been condemned.
Through Navajo and broken English, Begay expresses a nuanced wish that is lost on many here on the Reservation, far from the policymakers of Washington and just weeks after the President-elect Donald Trump tweeted his support for expansion of the nation’s nuclear program.
The next morning he reportedly doubled down when he told MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Begay and many others simply wish that the Navajo, the principal victims of the first nuclear arms race, would be cared for and remembered before words like Trump’s were so emphatically spoken.
I Remember The Water
The Navajo struggle to recall a time before the water died.
As dusk approaches, Desaire Gaddy explores the dry scrubland that surrounds her rural home outside of Thoreau, New Mexico. She twirls a flower in her hands and warm desert air plays games with her black hair. “Do you want me to show you where I dreamed of the water running?” she muses. “All through here, just blue water and dolphins.” Most children grow up on the Reservation knowing nothing of another life, but not Gaddy. After living for a time in Florida, she was moved back onto the Reservation to stay with relatives who live without running water due to the ongoing water crisis.
In many such rural communities with homes so few and far between, modern water infrastructure is unrealistic and families typically draw well water for drinking, bathing and sanitation. But decades of irresponsible mining practices, radioactive spills and general ignorance to the dangers of uranium have resulted in the contamination of much of the Reservation’s underground water resources, further aggravating the situation.
One such spill took place in Church Rock, New Mexico on July 16, 1979, just four months after the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania garnered international attention. The Church Rock Spill became the largest spill of radioactive material in North America when 1,000 tons of solid radioactive waste and 93 million gallons of radioactive tailings solution broke from a holding pond and flowed into the nearby Puerco River, turning its waters yellow. Requesting anonymity, one United Nuclear Corporation employee at the time of the incident recalled the faulty practices that led to the spill.
He explained that a poorly designed system of pumps could not adequately push the semi-solid radioactive solution to the proper tailings ponds, therefore one cell was continually filled beyond safe capacity. When a crack started forming in the holding pond’s barrier, the company assigned workers to observe and report on its condition, but production did not halt. He remembered feeling no surprise when on the morning of July 16 he was informed of the spill. In sharp contrast to the Three Mile Island accident, the spill in Church Rock received little media attention and the Governor of New Mexico even turned down repeated requests for a declaration of a federal disaster area, simultaneously downplaying the impact of the event and reducing possible aid to the affected Navajo.
An article published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2007 examined the lack of publicity and public concern for destructive nuclear releases on indigenous lands versus those that take place among the general population: “We urge exploration of whether there is limited national interest and concern for the primarily rural, low-income, and American Indian communities affected by these releases,” the report reads.
Due to spills of this nature and poor regulation of the uranium mining industry, today thousands of Navajos not only live without access to running water but also are forced to haul drinkable water from nearby towns rather than the closest water wells. Uranium becomes an invisible killer as it rarely affects the clarity or taste of groundwater but can still render it toxic, especially for children and pregnant mothers.
Water insecurity is typically an issue associated with developing nations, but even today it affects nearly two million Americans. Minorities are over-represented in this statistic.
According to an international water charity, DigDeep, Navajo people are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water or a toilet. In practice, this means families across the Navajo Nation have to wash their children’s hair in small washtubs. They have to haul all drinking and washing water from the closest towns and cities, with round trips sometimes reaching 100 miles. The tasks required for even the smallest of families are time-consuming and strenuous.
Alice Long and her husband Daniel Yazzie make bi-weekly trips in their small car to the nearby town of Thoreau in order to fill up their assortment of Hawaiian Punch bottles and plastic milk jugs with water from a free pump at the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission. In one trip, they can only haul a fraction of the water that most Americans use in a day. “My son, he moved to the city because we have no shower, no running water,” Daniel said, his voice breaking. “He didn’t want to be around us no more. To me, it just feels ungrateful.” He and Alice now live together near a main road leading to Thoreau, just a matter of feet from a waterline, to which they have still not been connected. “I don’t think about that no more,” Alice Long said about receiving the water that flows beneath her feet. “I gave up on that a long time ago.”
The expensive process of connecting more Navajos to the underground water lines is one of the only solutions to the problem of contaminated groundwater. It is further complicated by the formidable rock that makes up much of the desert floor in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, rock that breaks construction equipment and adds to the already-prohibitive costs.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, one of the largest utility providers on the Navajo Nation, is slowly chipping away at the problem as one by one they work to connect families to the waterlines. However, in an interview with a reporter from Vice News, NTUA Deputy General Manager Rex Kontz said that he does not believe that this crisis will be resolved in any fewer than 50 years and for any less than $5 billion. Before that happens, many more Navajos, just like Alice and Daniel, will live out their years not knowing of another life, a life with running water.
If the task of cleaning or fencing off the remaining mine sites seems daunting, then the job of providing the Navajos with plumbing and drinkable water is nearly impossible. Tucked away on a reservation, far from any major city, the plight of the Navajo is “out of site and out of mind to the rest of the country,” explains one father of two, who asked not to be named. “We’re the forgotten ones, we’re the forgotten Americans.”
In Navajo tradition, four sacred mountains are said to mark the edges of the Navajo’s land and are believed to watch over the people. In one prayer, the four mountains speak to the Navajo saying:
“My child I will feed you, give you good health, and I will give you strength and courage. My child I will give you clean air and clean water to drink. I am your Life.”
But from beneath the mountains on the Navajo Nation Reservation have come some of the richest deposits of uranium in the world, and with them sickness, suffering, pain, and loss. Today, the Navajo know this bitter irony all too well. They live it each day.