Native American Uranium Miners Still Suffer, As Industry Eyes Rebirth

Kari Lydersen

Elsie Mae Begay (bottom second from right) and others at the Indigenous Uranium Forum have testified about the continued effects of uranium mining on their communities.

ACOMA, NEW MEXICO — On the Navajo Nation, almost everyone you talk to either worked in uranium mines themselves or had fathers or husbands who did. Almost everyone also has multiple stories of loved ones dying young from cancer, kidney disease and other ailments attributed to uranium poisoning. 

The effects aren’t limited to uranium miners and millers; whole families are usually affected as women washed their husbands’ contaminated clothes, kids played amidst mine waste and families even built homes out of radioactive uranium tailings. 

For years the government has had a program to compensate uranium workers (and down-winders” affected by nuclear weapon testing). And the federal government is slowly cleaning up contaminated land. 

But as evidenced at the Indigenous Uranium Forum here this weekend, the uranium industry that flourished in this region from the 1940s through 1980s continues to take a heavy toll on workers and their descendants. (An investigative piece in the LA Times shed light on the situation.)

At the forum, Navajo, Pueblo and other Native Americans remembered family members killed by uranium and lamented that most have still not received any form of compensation, even as many still live on contaminated land that poses an ongoing health risk.

Government compensation is limited to people working before 1971. The idea is that after that date the risks were known and hence the government isn’t responsible for poor working conditions that exposed miners excessively to the radioactive heavy metal. 

In September, a delegation of grandmothers traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby legislators for compensation for post 71” miners and their dependents. 

People said you grandmothers can’t make it, it’s a really long walk,” said Elsie Begay, who grew up in a canyon in Arizona downstream of a uranium mine. Her father, a miner, died of cancer and she thinks all her siblings’ health is affected by drinking and bathing in contaminated water from the arroyo that ran by their home. But we did it. We talked to those politicians, and they promised to do something so I think they will.”

For many of the women, it was their first time on a plane, subway or escalator. They happily described holding up impatient lobbyists and politicians at government building security checkpoints as they removed all their turquoise and silver jewelry. 

Elsie Mae Begay, no relation to Elsie Begay, has brought much attention to the issue by traveling with the documentary Return of Navajo Boy, produced by Chicago-based Groundswell Films. It tells the story of her brother John Wayne Cly, who was taken off the reservation by white missionaries after both parents died of lung cancer, and his return to his family decades later. 

It also chronicles the painstaking struggle for miners’ compensation, and the tragic catch-22 families like Elsie Mae’s are put in knowing their homes are contaminated but having nowhere else to go. 

The uranium industry nearly stopped in the late 1980s as prices plummeted, but now many companies are seeking to again mine in the southwest, anticipating rising prices in the near future. (Uranium hit record prices in 2007 but then dropped when the recession hit.)

Uranium company officials say current mining practices are much safer than in the past, and jobs in the area are badly needed. Most Native Americans in the uranium belt are intensely opposed to a resurgence in the industry. (Uranium mining is also being proposed in Alaska, where the environment and health versus jobs argument in terms of resource extraction is a defining feature of the state’s economy. Proposed mine sites are near Alaska Native land, and the industry could impact their traditional fishing and other practices.)

Larry King is a post-71 miner suffering breathing and other health problems, but he says he can’t get any assistance for expensive tests or treatment. Meanwhile new mining is proposed near his home, an in situ” process where uranium is sucked out of an aquifer, which industry officials say is much less environmentally disruptive. 

King doesn’t believe it, and he resents that the company is trying to win support by promising jobs.

They are dividing families,” he said. They’ll promise you big bucks, but they will destroy our aquifer and then leave the community to deal with it.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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