Navajo’s historic and continuing resistance to uranium mining

he Navajo people’s struggle to prevent the re-entry of mining corporations has so far been successful. It is fair to assume that as long as valuable resources remain on Indigenous lands profit-hungry corporations will continue to circle like vultures.

Navajo Nation battles uranium corporations, nuclear industry Decades of dealing with environmental degradation, racism, Liberation, By Bethany Woody MAY 8, 2013  “……….In early 2013, uranium companies approached the Navajo Nation in hopes they will allow them to renew mining operations on their land. These companies claim that they have developed newer and safer methods for extracting uranium, after decades of environmental destruction and abuse led the Navajo Nation to officially ban their mining.

This decades-long battle for environmental justice is part and parcel of the struggles for workers’ rights and Native self-determination, and against the forces of militarism and capitalism.

Exploitation of Navajo lands

The Navajo Nation sits on 27,425 square miles in the four corners area of the southwestern United States. The area holds a vast amount of uranium ore and thus has become a center in the struggle over nuclear energy and weaponry.

Since the end of World War II, and the onset of the so-called Cold War, the U.S. government began mining uranium domestically in order to not rely on foreign supplies. Uranium is one of the most common naturally occurring radioactive metals on the planet, and was understood as essential for the development of nuclear weapons and technology.

Due to the unique geology and consistent climate of the Southwest, mining companies saw the Navajo reservation as the most profitable site to open mining operations in the 1940s. In 1948, the United States Atomic Energy Commission declared it would be the sole purchaser of all uranium mined in the country, initiating a mining boom of private companies and contractors who knew they had a guaranteed buyer.

Of the thousands of uranium mines, 92% were located in the Colorado Plateau on which the Navajo Nation is located. Between 1944 and 1986 approximately 4 million tons of uranium ore was mined from Navajo Tribal land.

 

In the early days of mining, Navajo people flocked to the low-wage work given the scarcity of jobs around the reservation. The Navajo workers dealt with racist bosses and coworkers while going into the most dangerous and undesirable jobs at lesser pay. Nonetheless, after Navajo Code Talkers’ had famously contributed to U.S. forces in World War II, many Navajo workers believed they had a patriotic duty and responsibility to the United States.

Mineworkers were also lied to about the dangers of Radon poisoning.

Radon poisoning

Before the 1950s, there were no real regulations on the disposal of radioactive waste on tribal lands, mine ventilation and what concentrations of Radon were safe. The waste that was produced was dumped back on the land, contaminating water supplies, crops, livestock, and inevitably the human population. Rates of illness skyrocketed, and the contamination manifested into cancer, mainly lung. It also caused illnesses like tuberculosis, pneumoconiosis, chronic obstructive respiratory disease, and various blood diseases.

Radon is an odorless, colorless, tasteless radioactive gas that occurs naturally in the decay of uranium. Radon is one of the densest substances that remain in a gaseous state. It leaves behind “Radon Daughters,” a substance that sticks to dust particles and is inhaled by miners. Without proper ventilation in mines, the miners were exposed to Radon levels that were about 100 times higher than reported. There had been studies in Europe as early as the 1930s that proved the dangers of Radon exposure.

In 2005, the Navajo Nation officially banned uranium mining. But uranium decays at an extremely low rate, somewhere in the range of a billion years, and thus the threat of contamination is not resolved.

The 1979 nuclear waste spill

Open abandoned mines are not the only source of environmental contamination. In July 1979, there was a nuclear spill in Church Rock, New Mexico after a dam holding back the United Nuclear Corporation’s waste pond broke and released massive amounts of contamination onto the Navajo reservation. Over 93 million gallons of radioactive tailing and acidic tailing solution poured into the Rio Puerco. More radiation was released into the environment during this disaster than during the well-known Three Mile Island accident four months earlier.

After the 1979 spill, the Navajo Nation asked then governor Bruce King of New Mexico to declare a disaster area so they could receive disaster assistance. King refused. The people of the Navajo Nation had no choice but to resume using the contaminated Rio Puerco. Only in 2008, nearly 30 years later, did the Environmental Protection Agency announce a 5-year clean-up plan for the Navajo Nation. As of 2011, the EPA had aided in the removal of about 20,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil.

The Navajo people’s struggle to prevent the re-entry of mining corporations has so far been successful. It is fair to assume that as long as valuable resources remain on Indigenous lands profit-hungry corporations will continue to circle like vultures……http://www.pslweb.org/liberationnews/news/uranium-and-the-navajo-nation.html

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