Uranium Mines on Native Land

The New Indian Wars

The weekend of April 27-29, 1979 marked a turning point in Indian resistance, and may even herald the beginning of the end for the source of the nuclear fuel cycle. On those dates, thousands of Navajo and Pueblo Indians--joined by Chicano and Anglo supporters--physically and spiritually protested uranium mining on native lands. The demonstration occurred at Mt. Taylor, N.M., a sacred mountain to local natives and the site of a Gulf Oil-owned underground uranium mine--the deepest of its kind in the world. Beyond the implications of bringing 100 million pounds of uranium from deep within the earth to the surface, the people view this mine as an act of sacrilege and desecration.

Speakers at the conference included local, national and international native American speakers, Chicano representatives who live near the mine site, and Anglo representatives Helen Caldicott, the Australian author of Nuclear Madness, and George Wald, Higgins Professor of Biology Emeritus. The gathering provided the basis for ongoing resistance to uranium and coal mining slated for Lakota, Spokane, Ojibwa, Dine and Navajo reservations, along with the land of many other native Americans. Local Chicano residents have been significantly affected by the national nuclear waste isolation pilot project located on a Chicano land grant in the southern part of the state. For these reasons and many others, people of all races have banded together over the issue of uranium exploitation on native American lands.

This conference follows a law suit filed in December 1978 by 92 Navajos and one Acoma Indian in an effort to halt uranium production indefinitely. These two groups represent contingents of growing Indian resistance to government and corporate exploitation of Indian land, resources and people.

Filed in Washington, D.C., the lawsuit names as defendants six branches of the federal government--the Departments of Energy, Interior and Agriculture, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the Environmental Protection Agency. The plaintiffs contend that the country's ongoing uranium policy has not been approved by the public. This uranium policy has included the leasing of large areas of Navajo, Pueblo and other Indian lands for uranium exploration and development.

Uranium is the raw material used to fuel nuclear power plants and to make nuclear weapons. The health and environmental problems related to the nuclear fuel cycle have not been resolved, yet federal approval of all projects, usually through the issuance of prospecting permits, mining plans, and rights-of-way over federal and Indian land, has been continuous in the past decades, with or without environmental impact statements (EIS).

Environmental impact statements are required by the National Environmental Policy Act for all federal actions which significantly affect the environment. The plaintiffs contend that since 1970, many of these actions have been approved without the EIS's. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has approved 303 Indian uranium leases, and the U.S. Geological Service okayed nine mining and reclamation plans. Both of these agencies fall under the Department of the Interior.

Prior to 1970, uranium mining on Indian lands was very much a fledgling industry, but by 1975 the Federal Trade Commission could report 380 uranium leases on Indian lands as compared to four on public and acquired lands. The momentum once established, the industry flourished.

Anaconda made the first discovery of uranium in the U.S. at Laguna Pueblo, N.M., in 1951. Within 20 years, Anaconda's mine has become the largest uranium strip mine in the world, over five miles long and without any prospect for restoring the land to its original condition.

The second big company to move into the area was Kerr McGee. In the mid-1950s, Kerr McGee discovered the uranium reserves of the Navajo Nation. Within a few years, the company had developed a series of underground uranium mines and a uranium mill at Shiprock, the major population center of the Navajo reservation. According to provisions of the BIA-negotiated lease, Kerr McGee held rights to the land "for as long as the ore is producing in payable quantities." The BIA viewed the mines as a welcome boost to the Navajo economy, providing jobs for a people plagued with unemployment hovering in the 50 per cent range. Kerr McGee saw the mines as an easily available uranium source--important for the first oil company to diversify into the nuclear industry--as well as an abundant supply of cheap labor.

The BIA prohibited union organizing on the reservation. Consequently, while union uranium miners were paid $2.01 per hour in 1963, Navajo miners earned only $1.25; in 1968, hourly union wages rose as high as $3.42, while Navajo miners got $2.26. Former miner Terry Light recalled. "The company came around and said there were mining jobs opening up, but they didn't tell us a thing about the dangers of uranium mining." The Navajo man continues, "The mining came cheap back then. The white men really took advantage of the Navajos who needed jobs."

The jobs came, with over 100 Navajos employed as uranium miners. There were few problems until the ore ran out.

In 1969, Kerr McGee began to move out of Shiprock, abandoning uranium mine shafts and the uranium mill in favor of awaiting ore bodies found elsewhere on the reservation. In the early 1970s, the long-term effects of low-level radiation began to take their toll among the Navajo miner workforce. By 1974, 18 Navajo uranium miners had died from radiation-induced lung cancer, with many more near the hospitalization stage. Kerr McGee refused to take any responsibility or to pay medical expenses. As Kerr McGee spokesman Bill Phillips told one reporter in Washington, "I couldn't tell you what happened at some small mines on an Indian reservation; we have uranium interests all over the world." More painful than Kerr McGee's negligence was the apathy displayed by the federal agencies which had approved the mines and purchased uranium from the company.

Amanda Spake, a Washington-based freelance journalis, reported in 1974:

Official after official has denied responsibility for the 18 deaths, except one who denied that the mines ever existed. Although the federal government did not willfully kill the 18 miners, its policy of death through inaction killed them just as surely.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had purchased the uranium for its ambitious nuclear weapons program, and this agency also denied responsibility. The AEC stated that it had jurisdiction over the uranium only after it had been taken out of the mine.

Since 1974, conditions have not improved for Navajo and other Indian uranium miners. As of today, 25 Navajo uranium miners have died and an additional 25 have radiation-induced lung cancer. Since the dosage of radiation is relatively low, the effects do not appear for many years, yet they do surface eventually. Doctors at the Shiprock Indian Hospital treating the miners have found that neither radiation therapy nor surgery arrests the cancers' development. This rare type of small-cell carcinoma is diagnosed usually less than a year before the time it claims its victim.

As if uranium miner deaths are not enough, Kerr McGee's abandoned uranium mine amounts to something more than an eyesore for the Navajo people. The uranium mill at one time processed raw uranium ore into "yellowcake," discarding tons of low-grade uranium ore called tailings in the process. For every ton of uranium mined, only 2.24 ounces of processed ore results. Although the company is long gone, the 71 acres of uranium mill tailings remain, untreated and exposed in the city of Shiprock. The U.S. Department of Energy now estimates that those persons residing within a half-mile radius of uranium mill tailings piles have a 100 per cent greater risk of contracting cancer than the general population. The reason is fundamental to the nature of uranium. Uranium mill tailings retain 85 per cent of the original radioactivity of the uranium--"wastes" or not. Kerr McGee's abandoned uranium mill and tailings pile lie approximately 60 feet from the San Juan River, the major water source for the local Navajo population. As one relative of a deceased Navajo uranium miner lamented:

Where the uranium slug has been dumped

Children wade in the water.

But break out in sores.

Meanwhile, back at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it's business as usual. With the blessings of the bureau, 100 per cent of all federal and Indian uranium production (total government-controlled uranium) came from Indian lands in 1974. In January 1977, the Secretary of the Interior granted a uranium lease to Exxon for 625 square miles of the reservation. According to the Institute for the Development of Indian Law, the lease was finalized only after the Department of the Interior had waived 13 regulations on leasing procedure. One of the regulations would have limited lease size to 2,560 acres, while another would have cancelled the lease if Exxon did not abide by the agreement. As it stands, fences, ore drilling rigs, and other machinery are propagating all over the reservation.

Last year, the TVA, Mobil Oil, and United Nuclear Corporation submitted an environmental impact statement for a proposed uranium mine and mill complex in the eastern portion of the Navajo reservation. The BIA made arrangements for the lease in 1970, although Navajos living in the area never heard anything about the proposal until 1978. Mary C. Largo, a Navajo woman of the Dalton Pass Chapter (an area under lease), signed up as a plaintiff in the December 1978 lawsuit after drilling began on her land allotment without her permission. "I never saw any contract papers, I never put my thumbprint to anything," the 78-year-old Navajo complained. "All at once the trucks and drills started coming onto my land, but nobody from the company told me anything about what they were going to do."

Twenty uranium exploration holes now surround Largo's hogan, a traditional Navajo house. Several of these holes lie less than 100 feet from her front door. Marie Largo went to the local BIA representative, who told her that the mining operation would bring her money. For the time being, however, her sheep cannot feed on the grass near the exploration rigs, and the water contaminated in the uranium exploration is unsuitable for either her personal or livestock needs.

The Dalton Pass Chapter of the reservation passed a resolution late last spring calling for a halt to all uranium exploration and mining on their lands. The impact was nil. Development continues unabated as the TVA-Mobil-United Nuclear consortium project expands from uranium exploration into mine shaft and mill construction. The miners will be drawn from the Navajo population, with the "specialists" being non-Indian experts from outside the reservation. This project, in conjunction with the many other coal and uranium mining projects, promises to make a uranium boom town out of a hitherto traditional Navajo community. In turn, according to the environmental impact statement, the uranium will go to fuel TVA's proposed 17 nuclear reactors in the Southeastern United States.

TVA is only one of the six federal agencies indicted in the legal suit. As Peterson Zah, head of Navajo Legal Services, put it, "We're suing the federal government, the first one on the list is James Schlesinger, the Secretary of Energy." The plaintiffs did not choose to indict one federal agency over another since they are all related. The President and the Department of Energy (DOE) jointly make national energy policy, producing Carter's "moral equivalent to war on the energy crisis." The rest of the agencies implement this policy in whichever ways they are most capable. The Interior Department is no exception; orders from DOE are faithfully filled by the Interior Department is no exception; orders from DOE are faithfully filled by the Interior Department and its fully-owned subsidiary, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA recently released the San Juan Basin Regional Uranium Study, which outlines plans for ten uranium mills and 100 uranium mines for the Four Corners area in the Southwest by the year 2000.

Recent experience has furnished no exception to this policy. In the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, Carter has reaffirmed his commitment to nuclear energy. With over 55 per cent of domestic uranium reserves and over one-third of all western low-sulphur coal located on Indian reservations, the native peoples will bear the brunt of Carter's energy policy. The land is leased, underground and strip mining commences, and people are relocated. The "Indian wars" are not over. In one year, according to Peter MacDonald, tribal chairman of the Navajo reservation, "The Navajo Nation exports enough energy resources to fuel the needs of the state of New Mexico for 32 years."

One hundred years after the "Oklahoma Oil Rush," the cast remains the same: Indian people, the energy corporations, and the energy demands of a growing America. The only difference is that, 100 years later, Indian people have retained only 4 per cent of their original land base, while the energy corporations have become the largest corporations in the world.

This generation will witness the last performance of an old script. Land used for uranium mining can never again be used for animals, crops or people. The nuclear radiation released at the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle destroys all that surrounds it. "Down the road," it may bring radiation and nuclear weapons factories to urban centers worldwide. The end result--plutonium with a half-life of 24,000 years.

The source" of the nuclear fuel cycle is in rebellion. The Navajo lawsuit and the events of last weekend are just a start, expressing growing native resistance to corporate and government exploitation. The government and the companies entice the colonized people with money and jobs, but the people, caretakers of the Western Hemisphere, demand much more. The people demand a future free of radiation, abandoned mines and mills, a future free of the threat of genocide to their children.