'Yellow Dirt': The Legacy of Navajo Uranium Mines

In her book Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, former Los Angeles Times reporter Judy Pasternak documents the toxic legacy of uranium mining in the Navajo lands of northeastern Arizona, where radioactive dust wound up in Navajo homes and drinking water.

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In the thick of World War II, with the government worried about atomic experiments in Germany, the Manhattan Project was born. And it had one mission, and that was full speed ahead on research to produce the atom bomb.

There was just one problem: where to get the uranium. At the time, there were two prime sources, the first, a mine way up near the Arctic Circle, over a 1,000 miles from the nearest railway; and the other, a mine deep in the Belgian Congo.

So the Army wondered: Wasn't there any more secure, domestic source of uranium ore? And they found it, and a lot of it, all over the Navajo homeland in northeastern Arizona, which is where my next guest's book takes places.

FLATOW: The book is "Yellow Gold(ph): An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed." It takes us back to those wartime days of exploratory mines. Yellow gold is I keep calling it "Yellow Dirt." I'm sorry: "Yellow Dirt: American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed." It takes us back to those wartime days of exploratory mines, to the decades of neglect after most of the mines closed, when the Navajos unwittingly built homes out of radioactive dust and drank lake water laced with uranium right up to today, where the federal government is working to clean it all up.

Judy Pasternak is the author of "Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed." She's a former writer and investigative reporter for the L.A. Times. She joins us from our studios in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. JUDY PASTERNAK (Author, "Yellow Dirt"): Hi, Ira, thanks for having me here.

FLATOW: Take us back to those early days on the reservation. How was uranium discovered there? Walk us through that sequence.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Well, there were a couple of different things happening at the same time. One of the things that happened is that the Manhattan Project actually formed a front company, and they called it Union Mines Development Corporation.

They sent geologists out to the reservation. Their cover story was that they were looking for another mineral called vanadium that hardens steel. And they sent back cables where they found the uranium. You know, they weren't allowed to use the U-word, even though their cables were classified, and they called it S-37, SOM.

FLATOW: Top secret stuff they were working on.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Top secret stuff. And then the other thing that happened was at the same time, those people worked for Union Carbide, which had formed a front company for the government. Then there was another company called Vanadium Corporation of America, which did mine vanadium, but they had a secret contract to siphon off uranium from vanadium or -for the Army. And they were looking also for this strange ore, and a...

FLATOW: Did they enlist the Navajos to help them find it?

Ms. PASTERNAK: Well, the Navajos did. What happened there was an Indian trader was helping them, and he put some stones out on his counter, and about 15 miles away, there was a valley where the patriarch who had settled the place had found these strange rocks up on the mesa where he'd graze his sheep. And he called this stuff leetso, which is the Navajo word for yellow dirt.

And he told his children not to show it to the white men, and one of his sons, though, was, you know, motivated partly by patriotism and partly by the allure of riches, not necessarily in that order, actually betrayed his father.

FLATOW: Oh, so he showed it, and then this guy said wow, this is exactly what we're looking for. Where did you get this stuff?

Ms. PASTERNAK: Absolutely. That's what happened.

FLATOW: And so did he show them the source of where it came from?

Ms. PASTERNAK: He sure did. He took them on a hike, a long wagon ride and then a hike. And within a year or so, there were about 100 miners blasting away at the mesa.

FLATOW: And it created all sorts of problems eventually with pollution, uranium pollution and the dust falling out everywhere.

Ms. PASTERNAK: That's right. It was a problem first of occupational exposure for the miners and then later for the entire community at large.

FLATOW: And you talk about in your book that the Navajo actually built their homes out of this radioactive dust.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Yeah, after the mining ended, the companies, VCA and the other companies that came in, were had clauses in their leases that said they were supposed to return the land in as good condition as received. But the federal inspectors let them go without cleaning up.

And so there was all this ore that was nicely squared off by the blasting laying around, and there were these sandy mounds at four processing sites around Navajo, huge in this one area where the betrayal took place, they had two piles. One covered 20 acres, and one covered 10.

And it was - the Navajos were very poor and very practical, and they discovered this stuff made really good cement. And they had these square rocks, and they used it to build foundations and floors and bread ovens and stucco walls.

FLATOW: Wow, and so you recount how when some of the white people came in, they had Geiger counters, and they wow, it like went off the charts. These homes were hot.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Yeah, much later, in the '70s and '80s, there was an EPA guy who discovered that many of the homes in this one valley, you know, 1,600 or 1,700 homes in that valley, were very hot. And then another, about five or six years later, somebody out in the community with a television crew, who was just looking at old mines, was in a house doing an interview, and he turned his Geiger counter on, and it went off.

FLATOW: Did anybody tell the Navajo miners that digging up all this uranium could give them all kinds of problems?

Ms. PASTERNAK: No. The Public Health Service actually examined the Navajos. The problem for them, which was well-known to the government, was that in 10 or 20 years' time, they faced a very high risk of coming down with lung cancer. So it was a down-the-road kind of thing.

And they would actually come and do medical exams, but they were under orders not to scare away the workforce.

FLATOW: And did they suspect themselves, over the years that they were working in the mine and being exposed to the dust, that this was actually harming them in some way?

Ms. PASTERNAK: Well, they didn't really know. There were occasional news reports in the outer world that did reach the tribal council, and they one tribal official actually asked if uranium, handling uranium was dangerous. And he was assured by some mining people and by some people from the Interior Department that there wasn't really a problem, and people that the government was looking to be sure and, you know, they'd be taken care of.

FLATOW: But in fact there were all kinds of cancers that were showing up.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Right.

FLATOW: Yeah. Tell us about this big radioactive spill, the Church Rock Spill.

Ms. PASTERNAK: That was in 1979. There was a mine just at the edge of the Navajo reservation proper, and just over the border, there was another processing facility run by United Nuclear.

And United Nuclear, instead of they were actually trying not to have those mountains of sand there because by that time, people knew it could be a problem. So they dissolved theirs in water and held it in a pond.

But they had it and it was supposed to be state of the art. They had an earthen dike holding it back, but there was a breach cracks in the dike. And 93 million gallons of radioactive material spilled into an arroyo and from there into a river, the Rio Puerco that marks the southern boundary of Navajo.

It was the largest accidental release of radioactive material in U.S. history.

FLATOW: And this happened right after Three Mile Island.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Right.

FLATOW: But we heard so much about Three Mile Island, and I can't ever remember hearing about this one.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Well, this one, people didn't pay quite as much attention outside.

FLATOW: Because?

Ms. PASTERNAK: Well, it was more it was more remote. You didn't have something like "The China Syndrome," the movie that got everybody worried about something like Three Mile Island happening. And, you know, a packed-dirt dam cracking is not as exotic, I guess, as those cooling towers.

And I don't know how much had to do with the fact that there were white people or Indians involved.

FLATOW: And so where does it stand today with all this - you had all this water and all this radioactivity 30 years ago. You have the mines. You have the homes built out of cement made that may still be radioactive today. Has it been cleaned up? What's the state of it now?

Ms. PASTERNAK: Well, they're working on it. There have been efforts, in fits and starts, since the '90s, very incomplete and of course very late even then.

But in 2007, after I wrote a newspaper series for the LA Times about the environmental problems, Henry Waxman held a hearing and has since then been kind of holding several agencies' feet to the fire. And they're in year two of a five-year clean up plan. They've been knocking down contaminated houses and replacing them with safe ones and trucking clean water in where there are contaminated wells. But they really don't know the scope of the problem yet.

FLATOW: But that's not his congressional district, is it?

Ms. PASTERNAK: No.

FLATOW: He doesn't have anything to do with Arizona, does he?

Ms. PASTERNAK: No. He - and, in fact, he waited for a while because he thought that after the series ran, somebody who represented Navajos would step forward. But there is no predominantly Navajo district. They're kind of split up among a number of different people, and there's not a lot of clout there. And it kept nagging at Waxman. He read it didn't - you know, he reads the LA Times, and he finally - he decided he could do something about it, so he was going to.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Judy Pasternak, author of "Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed." You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Let's see if we can go to the phones. We got a caller to - Pavel(ph) in Laramie, Wyoming. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PAVEL (Caller): Hi, Ira, Judy. I'm a retired science teacher. In fact, I used to work for the Wyoming Geological Survey for our marvelous dude Dan Miller, when our Wyoming uranium boom happened a couple of decades ago. And it shut down - when it went bust, it shut down an entire town, Atlantic City.

My concern, as an environmentalist, is what, if anything, have you heard about Wyoming's ability to deal with - or their - and their track record to deal with something like this compared to Arizona's? And I do know, for the most part, though, it's a solution mining and not so much hands on. Any feedback? Did you learn about anything up here in the northern part of the Rockies?

Ms. PASTERNAK: Yeah. I know solution mining is going on in Wyoming. And this is a new technology. There's a lot of interest in new mining in the Navajo area, as well. It's going on already in Wyoming and Texas. And this is where you - basically, the companies would send chemicals, but it's - like seltzer, really, to scrub the uranium and other minerals out of sandstone, where it's been bound in the groundwater. And so what they do is they essentially pollute the groundwater, and then they bring the stuff up. They call it pregnant water. And they take the - they filter out the uranium and put the water back down.

There's a lot of - there are concerns about how clean they can get the water once they've polluted it. And there are - I know in Wyoming, there were concerns to about how long it takes to clean up when you are shutting down a mine like that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking about mining and radioactivity, a book, "Yellow Dirt," with Judy Pasternak on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

Where was the government, as they call it, the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, doing all of this time? It existed.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Right. It existed starting in the '70s.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. PASTERNAK: So it was that - well, after the mining, but the - this was not a big priority for the EPA Superfund, which is the big law that covers cleaning up toxic sites, was really not created for a situation like Navajo, because what happened is you'd have a lot of exposure, but you'd have very few people compared to a population center in a city or a suburb.

And so even though the Navajos - there might be fewer of them, but they would be exposed in many more ways than in most other areas because they didn't have and still don't have - a significant number of them still don't have running water. You don't go to a faucet and get your water. So they drank this stuff. And they built the houses. So their exposure was - they had more exposure, but there were fewer of them. And there was nothing to cover that situation.

And during the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, there was no obstacle that would stand in the way of getting this stuff out. It was urgent. But the urgency evaporated afterwards. National security wasn't at stake. It was just Navajo lives.

FLATOW: Yeah. And where do the Navajo stand today? What is their stance on uranium mining? Is it a political issue of the Navajo nation, or economic or what?

Ms. PASTERNAK: It's a hot issue, pardon the pun. It's a - in 2005, the tribal council passed a uranium ban, a uranium mining ban on the reservation. They don't want more mining in - wow, there are still wastes from the last round of how - and that this was something that was considered for a long time and was - they didn't pass it for a long time because there was interest in jobs.

But they did pass it, and now there's a big court battle going on to see whether that ban applies in an area where that is not part of Navajo country, but is not reservation proper, called the Checkerboard. And there are people that have mineral rights to mine there now, and there's a big fight going on.

FLATOW: So there's action within the Navajo nation itself, some controversy there about where - how to proceed.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Absolutely.

FLATOW: And any - as someone who's covered this issue, where do you think it will all come - where the fallout will be - no pun intended on this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PASTERNAK: Well, I don't know. It's - you know, right now, the Navajo president and the Navajo Tribal Council seemed pretty intent on preventing mining. They've got a there's Navajo attorney general. I mean, they've got a government that's modeled on the federal government who's been pretty aggressive in court. They are getting help from the guy who was the Enron prosecutor who's now in private practice. And they seem to want to stave it off. But, you know, administrations changed...

FLATOW: Right, right.

Ms. PASTERNAK: ...politic changes. So they could undo it someday.

FLATOW: Right. Judy, we've run out of time. I want to thank you very much for being a guest today and sharing with us your book "Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed," by Judy Pasternak. Thank you, Judy, for being with us today.

Ms. PASTERNAK: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break. And when we come back, we want to hear about your geeky, spooky Halloween projects. We've got some ideas how to spook up your house, residence, yard, whatever - your own costume from a lot of geeky advice. So stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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