Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims

(photographs © Kerry Richardson)

In September, 1990, a meeting was held at the Cove Chapter house of the Navajo Indian Nation. In the 1940's and 1950's, American Indians from the local community mined uranium ore from the hills around Cove for the atomic weapons program of the United States. Now the area is the location of a cluster of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases related to uranium.

The Cove Chapter House and surroundings on the Navajo Reservation.

For two days inside the Chapter house the Navajo's listened to testimony from former miners and relatives of miners who had died. The United States Congress had just passed a law authorizing cash payments to some of the miners or their family members who could prove the miners had received a certain level of exposure to radiation in the mines and who then subsequently developed lung cancer or one of several other respiratory diseases.

Listening to speakers at the Cove Chapter House.

The meeting was conducted almost entirely in the Navajo language. In addition to testimony from surviving miners, there were also presentations by the Navajo Nation's Abandoned Minelands Reclamation Project and also the tribe's Office of Navajo Uranium Workers. They were attempting to deal with the aftermath of uranium mining in the area, including identifying hundreds of mining sites in the area, compiling a registry of all tribal mine and mill workers, assisting with the complicated claims process for compensation, and improving health services for the many sick and injured people.

Speakers talked about the aftermath of uranium mining.

At first, it was a mystery as to why there was so much lung disease in the community, but by now it is understood that, as one of the widows stated, the miners, their husbands, died because the uranium ate up their lungs.

Widows of Navajo uranium miners.

Nuclear fuel chain front end. Uranium 238 decay series.

An explanation of the cause of lung damage from radon daughters. A sample of uranium.

The illustrations above show the following: the front end of the nuclear fuel chain or the travels of uranium; the radioactive decay series of uranium 238 including the "radon daughters"; a quote from the February-March, 1979 issue of "Mine Safety & Health" published by the U.S. Department of Labor regarding alpha radiation causing lung damage to uranium miners; a uranium ore sample.

The book A more thorough and up to date account of the struggle of the Navajos to obtain some measure of relief from the problems caused by uranium mining is contained in the book "If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans" by Peter H. Eichstaedt, published in 1994 by Red Crane Books, 2008 Rosina Street, Suite B, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87505. The book is illustrated with numerous photographs of the people involved, as well as pictures of the abandoned mine sites in the area. Many of the surviving Navajo miners are interviewed. There is a discussion of some shortcomings of the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, and an account of efforts at mine reclamation.

From the introduction: "This book is the story of how uranium mining began on Indian lands in the American West, how it was conducted, and how its deadly legacy still lingers in the lives of the men, women, and children whose harmony and homelands have been destroyed."

Click for links:

A longer text report on the September 1990 meeting in Cove, Arizona organized by the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum with the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee.
"In Motion Magazine" article featuring Timothy Benally, Sr., Director of the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers.
Controversy in Australia over the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine.
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