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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Native Uranium Miners

Air Date: Week of

Most US uranium deposits are found in the mountain West, expecially in the Four Corners region where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. Uranium there was mined mostly by Indian people. The mines are gone now, along with their high-paying jobs. What’s left, many natives say, is a deadly legacy — for which the government has only begun to make amends. Richard Mahler reports.


NUNLEY: The very first atomic bomb was detonated here in the US in New Mexico. From its beginning and to the present day, the nuclear era has touched the lives and lands of Native Americans perhaps more than any others. From test explosions to storage of civilian wastes to the extraction of the most important element in the nuclear cycle, uranium. Most US uranium deposits are found in the mountain west, especially in the Four Corners region, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet. Uranium there was mined mostly by Indian people. The mines are gone now, along with their high-paying jobs. What's left, many natives say, is a deadly legacy, for which the government has only begun to make amends. Richard Mahler has our report.


MAHLER: It is peaceful in midsummer on the Laguna Indian Pueblo 70 miles west of Albuquerque, but the serene mood is deceiving. The rolling desert landscape has been scarred badly by extensive uranium mining, which ended about 7 years ago.

(Bulldozer motors)

MAHLER: In the village of Paguate, Dorothy Ann Purley's small home overlooks the Jackpile, once the world's largest open pit uranium mine. On hills where her Laguna ancestors once hunted, bulldozers push sterile soil over radioactive tailings

PURLEY: I'm broken hearted about all this whole thing, and my land isn't put back the way Mother Nature left, where my people used to plant right now is just - we don't know how radiation-free it is right now. We need someone to come back to re-study not only the radiation part but the water. And the health of my people here in Paguate; that's what I'm trying to push right now.

MAHLER: Damage to the land is only one problem faced by Native American uranium miners. As her grandchildren play video games in the next room, 55-year-old Purley quietly contends that she is as much a victim of nuclear war as the casualties of Hiroshima. She is battling breast cancer and migraine headaches that Purley believes were caused by radiation exposure during the years she worked at the Jackpile mine. Purley's situation is familiar to thousands of Laguna, Acoma, and particularly Navajo Indians. Louise Abel is a physician working for the Indian Health Service. She has treated hundreds of diseased and dying miners. Abel says these individuals experience cancer and lung disease rates as much as 140 times higher than those of the general Native American population.

ABEL: The uranium miners here who are Navajo Indians have predominantly silicosis. They also suffer from pulmonary fibrosis, which is probably a result of the inhaled radiation. And they also suffer from a very high rate of lung cancer.

MAHLER: Since the latency of radiation-related health problems can be 20 years or more, Abel says no one knows for sure how many victims can be linked to uranium mining. But she and other doctors are suspicious about locally high rates of certain unusual cancers and birth defects.

ABEL: There was a study done here in the 1970s and 80s that looked at birth defects among the children born to uranium miners, and found higher rates of birth defects among that group. However, the group was small and the study was not large enough to reach what we call statistical significance.

MAHLER: Virtually all uranium mining ended in the Southwest during the late 1980s, when profits and demand dropped dramatically. Tribal officials and independent researchers have documented that bureaucrats and mine operators knew much more about the health hazards of uranium mining than they shared with miners.

BENALLY: The government thought that we were expendable.

MAHLER: Timothy Benally is a former miner and director of the Navajo Office of Uranium Workers. He thinks the government feared miners would have quit or gone on strike if they'd known how unsafe conditions actually were.

BENALLY: They knew what this would cause. It would have made a major difference in the operation of those mines. The only thing that a lot of people got was that the wages on the reservation, which was good, but other than that, that the Navajo miners didn't get anything else except death in the end.

MAHLER: In 1992, after a series of public hearings, Congress conceded that thousands of uranium miners had indeed been exposed unnecessarily to toxic radiation levels. The government authorized compassionate compensation payments, not unlike those paid to Japanese Americans placed in World War II internment camps. Benally is pleased that about 2,400 of his fellow miners or their survivors were eligible to receive these checks. Yet, like many Navajo, he believes the money is too little, too late. He wants to see the compensation act expanded to cover thousands of others made ineligible by legal loopholes. The act excludes many Indians who lack such basic documents as birth certificates and marriage licenses, seldom used on the reservation in years past. The act also does not cover uranium miners who worked after 1971, nor any open pit miners. This angers Indians on the Acoma and Laguna reservations, which border Navajo lands in northwestern New Mexico. Most of their mines began operating after 1971 and virtually all were open pits. But given the current political and fiscal climate, few expect an increase in funding for a constituency as small as Native Americans.


MAHLER: Despite the odds, Dorothy Purley and many other diseased and dying uranium miners insist they'll never give up. Purley says she's already taken her case directly to the US Secretary of Energy.

PURLEY: Last year, in May, I went and I spoke to Hazel O'Leary. At that time I was very mad, and I told her that I was very furious when I got up there, and I gave her my reasons why. I told her that my life was shortened. My health was taken away from me.

MAHLER: The Department of Energy referred our inquiries to the Justice Department, which administers the radiation exposure compensation act. A spokesman for the Office of Tribal Affairs said the Department is now negotiating with tribal officials on their proposed amendments to the act, and plans to lobby Congress on behalf of the changes being requested. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Mahler in Santa Fe, New Mexico.



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