Abandoned Uranium Mines in the Cameron area of the Navajo Nation

Written at SFSU in 2017

Uranium mining in the Navajo Nation lasted from 1944 to 1986 [1]. Under leases through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, almost 30 million tons of uranium were extracted from over 500 mining locations [2]. Although the mining ended decades ago, the deadly effects of uranium contamination linger to this day because most of the mines were never properly sealed, or cleaned up at the end of production [3]. Cameron, Arizona is one of the many areas in the Navajo Nation where the indigenous people have suffered from uranium contamination to the environment. The injustices arose through the process of nuclear colonialism, and the area was cast aside as a sacrifice zone.

aum map
A map of the Navajo Nation showing the different regions, and amount of abandoned uranium mines

Uranium was initially reported in the Cameron area in 1950 [4]. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a former agency of the United States government, hired Navajos to sweep the area [5]. The first discovery of commercial importance was made by AEC prospector, Charles Huskon in 1952 [6]. By 1963 when mining in the Cameron area had ceased Huskon had acquired a total of 17 mines, producing thirty-nine percent of all the uranium in the Cameron area [7]. Most of the mines were strip mines, ranging in size from shallow trenches to pits as deep as 130 feet [8]. When the mines were operational, Navajo men tended to go for mining jobs because they were close to home and was one of the few jobs available [9]. However, there was no education provided on the health risks of mining uranium, and the miners were not administered proper safety equipment [10]. There is no word in the Navajo language for radiation, and few of the miners spoke English or had formal education [11].

Dangers of Radon Gas

Radon is a colorless, odorless, cancer causing radioactive gas produced by the decay of the element radium [12]. Uranium contains radium and when it breaks down produces radon gas, which is what the miners were breathing in unfiltered [13]. Radon gas is linked to several negative chemical and radiological effects on the body such as increased risk for lung cancer, bone cancer, kidney disease and high blood pressure, along with impaired function to the reproductive and immune systems [14].

Health Risks

Today the mines are non-operational but still present a great risk to the people living in the area. Wind blows uranium dust around from the abandoned mines so that people breathe it in, it makes its way into the local water sources so that it is unsafe to drink [15]. In many cases the indigenous people living in these areas have no choice but to get their water from outside sources, since their own is tainted with uranium [16]. Others drink from unregulated wells, many of which contain high levels of uranium [17]. The Navajo Nation estimates that approximately 54,000 people do not have piped water to their homes [18].

lilcriver
Aerial View of The Little Colorado River, West of Cameron, AZ

How it Happened

To see how this energy injustice arose we need to look back to the Cold War era. During the Cold War, geopolitical tension was high and the threat of atomic war was very real. The United States needed uranium for atomic weaponry to supply the arms race against the Soviet Union and an abundance was found in the Navajo Nation [19].

When a geographic area has been put aside and permanently impaired by damage to the environment, in the name of a higher purpose it becomes a sacrifice zone [20]. These zones are often located in low-income and marginalized communities where residents lack political power or representation [21]. The reasoning behind “higher purpose” varies, but it is often described as pertaining to national interest [22]. This area constitutes as a sacrifice zone because the mines popped up to supply the United States with uranium, and when production ceased, the mining companies left without cleaning up the mess. The Navajo people are still being made to suffer to this day, sacrificing their health for a war that ended decades ago.

The United States benefited from the mining and the local Navajos paid the high price of being subjected to the various health risks associated with prolonged exposure to radioactive materials. This was through nuclear colonialism, or the taking or destruction of other people’s lands, natural resources and well-being, in the furtherance of nuclear technologies [23]. Even though the mines provided jobs for the local Navajos, the negative impacts heavily outweigh the benefits. The lack of protective equipment administered, failure to inform of the health risks, and destruction of land and natural resources makes this a prime example of nuclear colonialism. Today the EPA is working in the Navajo Nation on several projects to clean up the abandoned uranium mines and install public water systems to provide safe drinking water to those who need it [24]. The United States promises a thorough cleanup however, it is a slow going and tremendously expensive project that may take several generations before things improve [25].

References

[1] Cleaning Up Abandoned Uranium Mines. (2017, September 21). Retrieved November 02, 2017, from https://www.epa.gov/navajo-nation-uranium-cleanup/cleaning-abandoned-uranium-mines

[2] EPA 2017 November

[3] EPA 2017 November

[4] Chenoweth, W. L. (1993). Geology and Production History of The Uranium Ore Deposits in The Cameron Area, Coconino County, Arizona. Retrieved from http://repository.azgs.az.gov/sites/default/files/dlio/files/2010/u15/CR-93-B.pdf

[5] Chenoweth 1993

[6] Chenoweth 1993

[7] Chenoweth 1993

[8] Chenoweth 1993

[9] Brugge, D., & Goble, R. (2002, September). The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People. Retrieved October 04, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222290

[10] Brugge 2002

[11] Brugge 2002

[12] USGS, What is Radon? (1995). Retrieved October 04, 2017, from https://certmapper.cr.usgs.gov/data/PubArchives/radon/georadon/2.html

[13] Brugge 2002

[14] Uranium and Radiation on the Navajo Nation. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-06/documents/atsdr_uranium_and_radiation_health_dec_2014.pdf

[15] Your Health – Your Environment Blog. (2015, August 11). Retrieved from https://blogs.cdc.gov/yourhealthyourenvironment/2015/06/01/voices-from-the-field-uranium-in-the-navajo-nation/

[16] Providing Safe Drinking Water in Areas with Abandoned Uranium Mines. (2017, April 06). Retrieved October 04, 2017, from https://www.epa.gov/navajo-nation-uranium-cleanup/providing-safe-drinking-water-areas-abandoned-uranium-mines

[17] EPA 2017 April

[18] EPA 2017 April

[19] Loomis, B. (2014, August 10). Abandoned uranium mines continue to haunt Navajos on reservation. Retrieved October 04, 2017, from http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/investigations/2014/08/04/uranium-mining-navajos-devastating-health-effects/13591333/

[20] Bullard, R. D. (2011, June). Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114843/

[21] Bullard 2011

[22] Bullard 2011

[23] Healing Ourselves & Mother Earth. (2012). Retrieved October 04, 2017, from http://www.h-o-m-e.org/nuclear-colonialism.html

[24] EPA 2017 April

[25] Loomis 2014

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