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If you are not yet mad enough at mining companies, governmental bureaucracy, or how this country continues to treat Native Americans, have I got a book for you! I just finished Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak, which is about uranium mining on the Navajo reservation. I picked it up after my trip to Utah--I even went out to Monument Valley in the reservation, in the middle of the uranium mining belt, and had never heard anything about this.

The short version is, the Navajo and Hopi reservation in the Four Corners area is home to the largest deposits of uranium ore in the United States. Starting with the Manhattan project and continuing through the Cold War, there was a uranium boom that led to the opening of hundreds of mines throughout the reservation. Despite the tribe's attempts to regulate, to require that mining companies restore the land, and, frankly, to get some of the wealth coming out of the soil, they got screwed. Most of the money went to the mining corporations (including one partly owned by George H.W. Bush's daddy, so some of the Bush wealth is uranium wealth).

Miners, of course, had no idea what the dangers were and literally zero attempts were made to make it safe for them. When the uranium boom wound down in the sixties, the mining companies left their open pits and mine tailings as is. And so over the last fifty years, we've been watching a grand experiment in what long-term radiation poisoning does to a population. If you think I'm being flip, I'm not--health service employees intentionally hid the dangers from miners so that they could collect untainted evidence of the consequences of uranium mining.

This isn't just a book about an environmental disaster, though. This is about a group of people, the Navajo, that the US government spent hundreds of years trying to wipe off the planet, and when that didn't work, tried to force them off their land. The Navajo won an almost unique 1868 treaty that allowed them to return to their homeland, where they've remained.

And now America's wars, gung ho patriotism, and greed poisoned that land. It's like the uranium mining was designed to accomplish both goals: kill the Navajo, take their land. It's awful. And the book is full of decades of people, both Navajo and white allies, trying to get something to be done to a collective shrug from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an alphabet soup of government bureaus who agreed it was bad, but wasn't their problem. For example, the EPA regulated mills, but not the mines. White people work at mills. Navajo work at the mines. Or, there was a town outside of the reservation that had a number of houses built out uranium mining leftovers. The EPA paid to tear down all the contaminated houses, clean the soil, and build a contamination free town. There were also contaminated houses built on the reservation. Despite those houses being identified at the time the white town was cleaned up, it took forty years for the EPA to start cleaning up the Navajo homes. They didn't try very hard to warn them about the danger, either. And when they did build uncontaminated homes, one couldn't even be used by its new owner as she was handicapped and they hadn't included a wheelchair ramp.

And in the meantime, entire extended families are dying of cancer in their fifties. Babies are stillborn or being born with crippling, life-limiting disabilities. The book can't even quantify how bad the impact was because the first studies were only started at the time of publication.

The book has flaws--as it is a saga that covers seventy years, there are hundreds of players. I constantly lost track of who she was talking about. The author also positions herself, and her articles on the subject, as the deciding factor that finally got something done, which is kinda bull.

The fact is, this is still a disaster. It will take decades to even attempt to decontaminate the land, and it's doubtful federal authorities have the money or patience for that. (If you're thinking, that's what the Superfund is for, think again. The Superfund has decided over and over that too few people live on the reservation to be worth its attention.) The Navajo Nation has passed a universal ban on uranium mining. But that hasn't stopped efforts to start mining again just off the reservation. Because we all know that a poisoned aquifer in a desert will obey legal boundaries and stay out of the Navajo land.
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