Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Once Upon a Mine: The Legacy of Uranium on the Navajo Nation

On a low, windswept rise at the southeastern edge of the Navajo Nation, Jackie Bell-Jefferson prepares to move her family from their home for a temporary stay that could last up to seven years. A mound of uranium-laden waste the size of several football fields, covered with a thin veneer of gravel, dominates the view from her front door. After many years of living next to the contamination and a litany of health problems she believes it caused, Bell-Jefferson and several other local families will have to vacate their homes for a third round of cleanup efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Decades of uranium mining have dotted the landscape across the Navajo Nation with piles of contaminated mine waste. The EPA has mapped 521 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation, ranging from small holes dug by a single prospector into the side of a mesa to large commercial mining operations.1 The Navajo people did not have a word for “radioactivity” when mining outfits looking for vanadium2 and uranium3 began moving onto their land in the 1940s, and they did not understand that radiation could be dangerous. They were not told that the men who worked in the mines were breathing carcinogenic radon gas and showering in radioactive water, nor that the women washing their husbands’ work clothes could spread radionuclides to the rest of the family’s laundry.
Bell-Jefferson and her brother Peterson Bell played in and around the mines, splashing and swimming in pools of radioactive water that had been pumped out of the mines and then collected on their property. The contaminated water looked and tasted perfectly clean. Families used it for cooking, drinking, and cleaning. Hogans and corrals were built with mine wastes, as were roads.
All that changed on 16 July 1979. Just about a mile and a half from Bell-Jefferson’s home, a dam broke at the United Nuclear Corporation mill, where workers processed ore from the nearby Northeast Church Rock uranium mine. The spill dumped 94 million gallons of mill process effluent and 1,100 tons of tailings—an acidic, radioactive sludge—into a large arroyo that emptied into the Puerco River.4
The Church Rock spill occurred less than four months after the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, and it released three times as much radiation, making it the biggest nuclear spill in U.S. history, yet it received only a tiny fraction of the news coverage.5 Declared a Superfund site in 1983, the heaps of waste around the mill still cause radiation survey instruments to squeal from the invisible uranium atoms that remain active 30 years later.6
READ MORE: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/122-A44/

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