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A Legacy of Waste...

Harm to Native Peoples from Uranium Mining

Mine site road trip with dust storm in the background

Lands of indigenous peoples hold a great deal of the uranium supply throughout the world, and here in the Southwest about 25 percent of the U.S. recoverable uranium is on the lands of the Navajo Nation.  Watersheds, water supplies, sacred sites, and public health are all threatened by past and proposed future uranium mining.

Uranium mining and milling started on and near Navajo Nation land in the 1940s in response to the federal government's need for material for its atomic research and weapons programs.  Mines in Navajo Indian Country closed in the mid 1980s and the last mill was stopped in 1983, but health impacts and pollution threats remain from abandoned mines, former mills and waste dumps.  Former mine workers and their families suffer from long-term health effects and death from exposure to radioactive material and unsafe mining conditions. 

Here is just a short list of the impacts that highlight the legacy of uranium mining and the impacts of proposed uranium mining on native peoples in the Southwest:

  • More than 1000 abandoned mines and four processing mill sites are scattered across Navajo lands in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.  Uranium mining waste has also contaminated the drinking water in at least two Hopi villages. 
  • The largest accidental release of radiation in U.S. history occurred when an earthen dam at the United Nuclear Corporation's, mill at Church Rock, New Mexico  ruptured on July 16, 1979, sending 1100 tons of radioactive mill waste  and 95 million gallons of mine process effluent down the usually dry Puerco River.  The surge was detected 80 miles downstream, and contaminated water wells, used by Navajos for watering livestock. 
  • A landfill near the Navajo community of Tuba City and the Hopi villages of Upper Moenkopi and Lower Moencopi has caused uranium contamination that has leeched into the sole-source of drinking water for these communities. A plume of uranium contamination has been tracked by monitoring wells since the closure of the site, and is now less than half a mile from the villages. This plume is now within 2,000 yards of wells and spring-fed drinking water for Upper/Lower Moenkopi Hopi Villages.  This water is used by 1,000 residents.
  • In 1991, the Kaibab National Forest approved a plan for Energy Fuels Nuclear to mine uranium from a Havasupai sacred site, twelve miles south of the rim of the Grand Canyon.  The Canyon Mine is near Tusayan and in the watershed of Cataract Canyon which flows into Havasu Creek and through the Havasupai village.  The threats to these sites and to the watershed are as significant as ever.  Denison, the new owner of the mine, has indicated that they plan to reopen the Canyon Mine and develop it into a full-scale uranium mining operation in the near future.
  • The percentage of Navajo people reporting diabetes, kidney disease, certain auto-immune diseases and high blood pressure is highest in Navajo communities with the highest number of abandoned mines, according to preliminary results of a community-based health study in the Eastern Navajo Agency.
  • At Black Falls, Arizona, Milton Yazzie had been asking government officials to test the local water sources which are near old uranium mines.  He drove into Flagstaff, an hour away, for drinking water.  Later tests found dangerous levels of arsenic and uranium in the local water, and a pipeline from a safer source is now being built.  In 2003, the federal Environmental Protection Agency awarded Yazzie a plaque for being an "environmental hero" for his advocacy.
  • Stomach cancer was found to be 15 times higher than the national average in some areas near old uranium mines and mills on the Navajo Reservation, according to a study by the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation.
  • The Navajo tribal health agency found a rate of breast cancer 17 times higher than the national average in the 1980s, and research done by Northern Arizona University linked uranium to increased growth of human breast cells (LA Times, 11/19/2006).
  • The Havasupai tribe voted to ban uranium mining on their lands in December 1991.
  • The Navajo Nation officially banned new uranium mines and mills on reservation land in April 2005, by passing the Dine Natural Resource Protection Act, which prohibits uranium mining and uranium processing within Navajo Indian Country.

In December 2008 the Hualapai Nation also reaffirmed their uranium ban rejected offers from uranium mining companies.

For more information, contact:

Robert Tohe, Sierra Club Environmental Justice program, Flagstaff, AZ:  928-774-6103 robert.tohe@sierraclub.org.

Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Chapter, 202 E. McDowell Rd, Suite 277, Phoenix, AZ 85004, (602) 253-8633

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