Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak (2010)

July 8, 2011 at 1:14 pm (Nonfiction - history)

Subtitle: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed.

During World War II, the United States needed uranium.  The Navajo Nation had uranium deposits and needed jobs and money – and was glad to be helping the war effort, as well.  After the hot war, the Cold War required uranium for American nuclear weapons.

But the mining was carried out with no safety standards.  No ventilation, no dust remediation, no breath masks, and not a word to the workers that the substance they were excavating might be dangerous.  Pasternak notes that this was true at mines worked by whites as well, but truly vast quantities of uranium were mined on the Navajo Reservation by people who often did not speak English and usually were illiterate.  This went on for approximately twenty years.

For about forty years, many of the Navajo people lived next to mine tailings piles that scattered dust all over their homes and workplaces, and drank water contaminated with uranium and arsenic. Having no idea that the “yellow dirt” was dangerous, people used the tailings to make concrete for houses and floors.  For decades, the mines themselves were left open to the elements and anyone who wandered through.  Cancers and birth defects became common causes of death across the reservation.

All together, there were about sixty years of occasional individuals trying to raise the alarm, and being silenced by business interests, government interests, bureaucratic buck-passing, and lack of both money and the willingness to try to get the money to clean up the hazards.  Even when money was available, it was often tied up in language that addressed only a fraction of the problem.

Meanwhile, a town in whites’ territory whose residents had done equally foolish things with the local uranium mill’s waste material (used it for fertilizer, for adobe, etc.) had every scrap of contaminated material cleaned up and properly disposed of, and the yards, houses, etc. repaired and replaced (or even improved).  Part of that, the book makes clear, was because the town’s problem caught the interest of a powerful Congressman.

In fact, it seems likely that the Navajos’ problem has only been dealt with because it caught the attention of a powerful Congressman, Henry Waxman.  In 2007 – a year after the author’s newspaper series about the slow-motion disaster appeared – he brought the heads of the relevant agencies in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  They listened to Navajo testimony, and testimony from several of the people who’d tried to help in the past, and got reamed out by another interested Congressman, Tom Udall.

You can read a transcript of the testimony here.   It’s not all that long, really.

You can also read this book.  It’s painful, but necessary.  Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.  And frankly, it would be all too easy for the agencies who are supposed to protect these people – just like the rest of us – to drop the ball again.

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