|By Martha Ture, NAV Contributor
“Nobody told us, said Karl Katenay, they didn’t even give us protective masks. They just buried it all right here, contaminated bulldozers, shovels…”
Katenay was one of the last uranium miners in the 1800 foot deep pit when the price of uranium dropped and the Kerr-McGee Company closed the mines in Dinetah (Navajo country) in 1985.
200 million years!
Uranium has a half life of 200 million years.
Next to the Kerr-McGee mine a pond behind a dam owned by United Nuclear Metals held 1,100 tons of radioactive uranium sludge. When the dam containing uranium sludge burst in 1979, all the radioactive mud flowed across the land, into the groundwater, rose into the air, distributed radioactive particles onto dust, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and hydrogen molecules where they stay to this day riding the winds. Particles fell on ranches, grass, farms, spilled into a river near a Colorado River tributary and contaminated geography from the Navajo reservation into Arizona and Nevada. United Nuclear Metals shut down in 1985.
Children play in the poisoned river, people water their stock there. Horses, goats, sheep and cattle owned by local ranchers graze the contaminated land.
While poison sludge can be carried away, who will clean up and take away 1,100 tons of radioactive debris (for disposal in the front yards of the officers of Kerr-McGee and United Nuclear Metals)? And, who will compensate the nearly 400 dead Navajo uranium workers and their families with blood money? Not the officers of Kerr-McGee and United Nuclear Metals, and so far not the US government.
About 1,300 uranium mine sites remain in the 26,530 square mile Navajo Reservation. 250,000 people live on the Reservation in 110 communities. More than a third of those 110 communities are affected by radioactivity.
Remember, uranium has a half life of 200 million years.
Cheap, expendable labor, essential ore
Uranium mining started on the Navajo Reservation in 1942, and became a national security industry. The national security designation granted corporations like Kerr-McGee immunity from certain kinds of law suits. Navajo political weakness and the deliberate withholding of information let these corporations get away with literal murder. Knowing of the cancer causing effects and permanence of radiation, companies did not inform the Navajo workers of the hazards under which they were working, did not issue the workers masks or protective clothing, did not inform them of health effects, did not test them for exposure, and paid miners under the table so they would not show up on company pay rolls.
This failure to educate was a deliberate action sanctioned and underwritten by the US Government:
From 1942 until 1985, when mining in South Africa and Australia flooded the market with uranium ore and dropped prices, Navajo men mined uranium without protection or information on the reservation. (Ironically, the Navajo Tribal Council is considering issuing new uranium mining leases.)
Working without any protection or information, Navajo uranium miners contracted rare cancers and lung cancers and passed to their children congenital birth defects.
Anna Rondon of the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum has been quoted as saying,. “In some communities, the majority of women are widows.” Rondon and others are working to make the Navajo Reservation a Nuclear-Free Zone, which would include a ban on uranium mining.
According to a Congressional inquiry, “…Since the inception of the nuclear weapons program and for several decades afterwards, a large number of nuclear weapons workers at sites of the Department of Energy and at sites of vendors who supplied the Cold War effort were put at risk without their knowledge and consent for reasons that, documents reveal, were driven by fears of adverse publicity, liability, and employee demands for hazardous duty pay.
This is “owning up?”
Still, as Congress owns up to federal culpability, where are cleanup and care for the workers, their families, and the contaminated lands?
The Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, composed of families of impacted workers, began seeking compensation in the 1980’s. After years of unsuccessful lawsuits, failed legislation, and Congressional hearings, in 1990 Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). The compensation law for uranium miners applies to mine workers in five states who worked between January 1, 1947, and December 31, 1971. To be eligible for the $100,000 payment, the miners or their heirs must have written medical documentation of the miner developing lung cancer or certain non-malignant respiratory diseases after having been exposed to 200 or more working level months of radiation, if they are non smokers.
While Congress put nearly impossible hurdles before affected workers and limited compensation to a fraction of those affected, the Department of Justice welched on the deal. Instead of paying up, they issued IOU’s, saying Congress hadn’t authorized sufficient funding to pay approvedclaims.
In the year 2000, Congress passed amendments to RECA, making about 9,000 more people eligible and ordering the Department of Justice to issue implementing regulations within 180 days of passage of the law. The DOJ declined to follow the order in a timely fashion.
In January of this year, the comment period on the regulations being promulgated to commence to begin to get ready to start to provide compensation to the Navajo uranium workers’ families was extended 90 days, so that the regulations could be translated into Navajo so that traditional people on the reservation could understand what was being proposed on their behalf and for their benefit.
There is some chance that with another generation’s worth of persistence, the workers’ families may get compensated after all.