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A Deadly Legacy

Uranium Mining Leaves a Bitter Scar on Navajo Reservation

Contamination: Lung disease has killed at least 400 tribal members who dug the toxic ore from the 1940s to the 1980s. Survivors want the government to 'clean up this mess they made.'

August 06, 2000|DEBORAH HASTINGS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

COVE, Ariz. — Inside the stifling cinder-block house of Dorothy Joe, nothing moves but waves of grief.

One by one, the old widow and her children begin to sob, as if despair were contagious. The weeping circle begins and ends with her, sitting at the dining room table, staring at weathered hands as if they held answers.

She murmurs in Navajo, describing the white man's prized uranium and how it destroyed her husband.

"They never told us it would kill us," says David Joe, 38, choking on his tears. "I'm sorry," the son says, drawing a deep breath. "I'm sorry."

They received $100,000 from the government for the death of Raymond Joe, who scraped radioactive rock from surrounding mountains to fuel the Cold War. The conflict never turned hot, but it killed Ray Joe just the same.

He died six years ago but his family is inconsolable, as if he were just now drawing his last breath from these stagnant rooms.

Lung disease has killed at least 400 uranium miners on this reservation, according to the Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, a Navajo advocacy group.

The Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles in the Four Corners area, where the boundaries of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico intersect like the cross hairs of a rifle scope.

Here lies the world's largest deposit of uranium ore, and the Navajo who have lived on it for seven centuries. Neither troubled the other until the 1940s, when mining companies began blasting holes in stippled sandstone cliffs.

Virtually unburdened by health, safety or pollution regulations, the mines ran at least two shifts every day for nearly 40 years. By the 1980s, decreased demand closed the mines.

By then, Navajo men happy for the work and ignorant of radiation had loaded millions of tons of ore into open rail cars.

They wore no protective masks or clothing. They ate their lunches in holes choked with radioactive dust. They drank mine water that would have triggered a Geiger counter. They went home to wives who washed their filthy overalls with the family laundry.

The dying started in the 1960s. In places such as Cove, there are hardly any old men left. Instead, there are poisonous dumps, contaminated springs and thousands of gaping mines.

Recently declassified documents show the government knew from the start it was playing with poison but concealed the dangers.

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and apologized for failing to protect uranium workers and their families. It ordered payments of up to $100,000 to miners in Wyoming, Washington state and the Four Corners area, as well as to others who lived in the Nevada Test Site's fallout.

The money did not come easily. To get it, the Navajo had to produce documents that have no place among their people. Marriage certificates. Death certificates. Pieces of paper unable to convey whole truths.

A special tribal court was convened to verify marriages, births and deaths, a process that takes months. Witnesses must appear "to verify, sometimes, a person's existence," said Timothy Benally, a former miner who leads the victims committee. "We had six people die while their claims were pending."

On July 12, Congress amended the compensation act, increasing benefits and reducing paperwork. Still, the Navajo say it is not enough.

"Nothing can equal a human life," says Dorothy Joe.

Like the reservations, radiation is now part of the white man's legacy--a primer on what happens when the government tries to make amends for debts no man can pay.

*

The Navajo call themselves Dine (DiNEH), meaning "the people."

Four Corners looks much as it did when they arrived in the 1300s from northwest Canada. Red rock rises from upland plains. Deep canyons give way to barren badlands. The mountains, always green, sprout cedar and locoweed.

To the Navajo this is the Promised Land. The natural wonders of Shiprock, Canyon de Chelly and Rainbow Bridge are the dwelling places of their Holy Ones.

They plotted life according to nature's cycles. Many still do. In summer, when the valley shimmers in 110-degree heat, they climbed to the mountains. In winter, when howling winds batter the highlands, they returned to their hogans--dome-shaped dwellings of logs and clay--on the lowland.

From the Spaniards they learned to herd. From the pueblo people they learned to plant.

White soldiers came in the 1800s. During the Long Walk of 1864, more than 8,000 starving Navajo were driven 300 miles in the dead of winter to Ft. Sumner on the Pecos River. There they were prisoners. Nearly four years later, during a searing drought, they were sent back to a ravaged homeland now called a reservation.

Decades passed. With each one, it became increasingly clear that a life on the reservation wasn't much of a life at all. There was little work and less to do.

In the middle of World War II, when the government wanted something, it came calling in the name of patriotism.

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