Old Uranium Mines Still Haunt the Navajo

Retired Navajo miners suffer from high lung-cancer rates

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 15, 2014 5:30 PM CDT

(Newser) – During the Cold War, Navajos worked in uranium mines in the Southwest—which helped the US build atomic bombs and compete with the Soviets. Now those ex-miners are getting lung cancer at 29 times the rate of other Navajos, while their grown children become ill fairly often and their grandchildren play in contaminated areas. Understandably, "anger is rising" as the Navajo struggle to get federal funding for cleanup efforts, the Arizona Republic reports. US officials are debating whether to fund cleanups directly or go after old mining companies for it, even though the digging was done before modern EPA regulations. One mining company agreed in court to spend $1 billion, but that cleaned up only a few of the hundreds of mines that will clearly cost billions more. "We're confident we'll get enough money," said an EPA official.

It's not always easy to get federal funding for doctor's bills, either: One former miner couldn't prove a link between uranium and his lung disease because he had smoked a local herb during ceremonies; another got $80,000 in compensation, but the care and medication he receives only slow his pulmonary fibrosis. Why do they get sick? Because the alpha particle radiation emitted by uranium ore and debris can hurt kidneys and sometimes lead to liver disease and cancer when exposure is chronic, according to the EPA (that said, experts haven't yet proven it's uranium that makes the Navajo ill). In a recent twist, a uranium-mining company tried to convince the Navajo in Church Rock, New Mexico, to let them mine there again, saying it's safer than before and lucrative at a time when the government is regulating coal (which the Navajo rely on financially). But the Navajo Nation blocked that deal two weeks ago after residents expressed their ire, Indian Country Today Media Network reports. "We were born first, then the mines came," said a sobbing Navajo woman at a local meeting. "They messed the place up. Please, help us. No uranium." (Earlier this year, the last Navajo "code talker" from WWII died.)

In this May 7, 1953, file photo, Navajo miners work at the Kerr McGee uranium mine at Cove, Ariz., on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.
In this May 7, 1953, file photo, Navajo miners work at the Kerr McGee uranium mine at Cove, Ariz., on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.   (AP Photo)
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