By Martha Ture, NAV Contributor

Simply stated, the difference between the economics of the old colonialism, with its reliance on territorial conquest and manpower, and the “new colonialism,” with its reliance on technologically oriented resource extraction and transportation to the metropolitan centers, is the expendable relationship of subject peoples to multinational corporations. This fact has implications for both the new ways in which genocide is committed, and the new kind of dependence created. Under the old colonialism, the economy of subject peoples was more or less incorporated into the colonial system in a fashion which altered the subject people as little as possible. The economic base commodities were extracted and semiprocessed, in part, by the subject people. These people were expected to maintain their own subsistence economy basically intact…Under new style colonialism, the subsistence economy is not a matter of great concern to the corporations. The raw material they wish to process is usually not organic, noir does it require “heavy labor.” The multinational corporation today does not see any relationship between what they want (mineral wealth) and the local economy (organic wealth).

The Genocide Machine in Canada
Robert Davis and Mark Zannis

“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:

It is important to note that uranium mining is unlike most other kinds of mining in that during the course of blasing and digging for ore, radioactive radon-222 gas is released. Radon-222 is a natural decay product of uranium with a half-life of about three and one-half days. Radon gas by itself poses no real danger: as a noble gas, it is chemically inert and is simply exhaled. But its radioactive “daughter products,” can settle in the lungs and injure the tissues. The primary hazard comes from polonium-218 and 214, alpha-emitting radionuclides that lodge in the lining of the lung. Uranium miners are also bombarded by gamma radiation, but the primary danger, again, stems from the ingestion and inhalation of alpha emitters…Robert J. Roscoe of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has shown that nonsmoking uranium miners followed from 1950 to 1984 were thirteen times more likely to die from lung cancer than a comparable group of non-smoking U.S. veterans.

Rober J. Roscoe, et al., “Lung Cancer Mortality Among
Nonsmoking Uranium Miners Exposed to
Radon Daughters,” JAMA, No. 262, 1989

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.

(3) Many previously secret records have documented unmonitored exposures to radiation and beryllium and continuing problems at these sites across the Nation, at which the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies have been, since World War II, self-regulating with respect to nuclear safety and occupational safety and health. No other hazardous Federal activity has been permitted to be carried out under such sweeping powers of self-regulation.

(4) The policy of the Department of Energy has been to litigate occupational illness claims, which has deterred workers from filing workers’ compensation claims and has imposed major financial burdens for such employees who have sought compensation. Contractors of the Department have been held harmless and the employees have been denied workers’ compensation coverage for occupational disease.”

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?

Probably the worst single example of mill-related contamination occurred on July 16, 1979 at the United Nuclear plant in Church Rock, New Mexico, when a tailings dam gave way, releasing more than a hundred million gallons of highly radioactive water into the nearby Rio Puerco. About 1,700 Navajos living downstream were immediately effected, as were their sheep and other livestock, all of whom depended on the river for drinking water. Shortly thereafter, with spill area cattle exhibiting unacceptably high levels of lead 210, polonium 210, thorium 230, radium 236 and similar substances in their tissue, all commercial sales of such meat was indefinitely prohibited.

…even as the ban went into effect, IHS Area Director William Moehler — rather than calling for allocation of federal funds with which to provide emergency rations to those most directly at rish — approved consumption of the very same mutton and beef by local Navajos.

Perversions of Justice, Indigenous Peoples and
Angloamerican Law
, Ward Churchill, pp 170

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.

Martha E. Ture is Legislative Affairs Editor, Native News Online and founder of the San Quentin Writers’ Circle. Her writing has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Health Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Sierra Magazine, and other national publications. She is a member of the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers and a mentor with the Literary Arts for Incarcerated Youth program of South Dakota. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.