Toxic legacy — Amid plans for a nuclear energy revival, Native Americans deal with and protest the deadly fallout from uranium mining

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Ever since Manifest Destiny infested this green planet, Native Americans fought against the severe exploitation and horrific genocide that powered it. The struggle continues as Indian nations fight to ban uranium mining in their precious homelands.

Uranium mining mushroomed after the launching of the nuclear age. It provides the fuel for the reactors of nuclear power plants. Military demands for uranium, to build weapons of mass destruction, skyrocketed at the end of World War II.

The mining industry got their much sought-after uranium as rich deposits were discovered on Indian reservations in what was originally thought of as desolate, useless land. The mining industry made huge profits off thousands of Native Americans hired to work in the mines at low wages.

But the years of mining eventually wreaked havoc on the reservations of the Navajo, Lakota Sioux, Spokane, and other Native American communities, leaving behind death and disease among tribal members.

Uranium and its lethal dangers. When uranium is mined and milled, it creates radioactive dust and gas that are carried by the winds into the air. Large volumes of contaminated water are also released into rivers and lakes during the process. Throughout the areas surrounding the production of uranium, the many forms of this dangerous debris cause severe health problems and environmental damage.

Because companies failed to install proper ventilation, working conditions for Indian miners turned out to be deadly. As they labored inside the shafts, they breathed in deadly air full of radioactive elements. Their incidences of lung cancer rose at an alarming rate. They also went home covered with the poison, and their families were exposed. Leukemia, bone cancer, and birth defects increased.

On the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington state, Sherwood and Midnite were two mines operated respectively by Phelps Dodge, the notorious union-buster, and Newmont Mining Corp., one of the largest mining corporations in the world.

During the years of operation, huge truck transports were used to ship the ore in and out of the mines. The people who lived along the routes had high incidents of cancer. It is in part because of this terrible history that many Pacific Northwest tribes are currently opposing a proposal for a giant new coal transportation port in Washington.

Thousands of mines on Native lands were abandoned during the 1980s when the demand for uranium decreased. Rather than spend money to clean up their ghastly mess, mining companies left behind hundreds of open pits filled with toxic waste for the tribes to deal with. Some of the waste has inevitably leaked into the drinking water and gotten into the food supply.

Environmental racism. Most people know about the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. But few people know about the destructive nuclear accident a few months later at a privately owned mine at Church Rock, N.M., on July 16, 1979.

A poorly constructed dam broke, spilling over one hundred million gallons of pooled radioactive waste into the Rio Puerco. The toxins flowed to Arizona and onto the Navajo reservation.

The mine’s operator, the United Nuclear Corp., remained silent right after the accident and failed to notify the Navajo Nation that lives were in danger. After the Center for Disease Control was called, the indigenous community was finally notified about the radioactive waste seeping into the drinking water used both by people and livestock.

To this day the corporation has not been fully held accountable for its negligence. It merely a paid a small class-action settlement and put a very token amount of effort into cleaning up the mess.

The extent of the damage is appalling. The Church Rock Chapter of the Navajo Nation released a 2007 report describing elevated amounts of radioactive toxins in the affected areas.

Pollution, though, knows no borders. Don Yellowman is president of the organization Forgotten People, which fights for Native sovereignty and for social, environmental, and economic justice. “The water that southern Arizona consumes may be contaminated with radioactive nucleotides from the Church Rock spill,” Yellowman warned this reporter. “Indigenous people have been violated for centuries and everyone and every living thing is being poisoned in some form or fashion.”

Forgotten People demands immediate action from the U.S. government to remedy the radioactive uranium contamination and compensate its downwind victims.

Native American resistance. For decades, First Peoples have stood strong against the rich and powerful mining industry.

Uniting with other environmentalists, Native resistance to new mining proposals and the buildup of nuclear power plants intensified in the 1970s and ’80s. During the 1990s, the Western Shoshone and Paiute led protests to stop a nuclear waste dump on Yucca Mountain. In 2008, the Spokane won a complaint against Newmont, which was ordered to pay a share of the multimillion-dollar cleanup.

The deadly threat is far from over, however, with the mining industry now lobbying to lift bans and regulations on uranium mining. Their efforts are prompted by the increased demand for uranium by the global nuclear energy industry.

Uranium surpluses are drying up in Europe, and U.S. corporations are looking for ways to commence their highly profitable toxic exploitation once again. Their well-funded propaganda machine is at it again, cynically trying to convince people that nuclear energy is “safe and sanitary” compared to noxious, climate-change-inducing fossil fuels.

I’m reminded of a merry Disney cartoon that was shown to my class in grade school, which showcased characters from the Magic Kingdom telling us about the promise of atomic power as an abundant and clean source of energy. The film left out, of course, the destructive nature of this energy.

In its goal of finding ways to make buckets of money, the capitalist market system does not plan for disastrous long-term impacts. Without a doubt, the immediate drive for profits has guided the mining industry to disregard the lives of Native Americans, communities of color, and a growing list of poor and working people. Their shortsightedness will impact everyone who lives on this one and only planet of ours for generations to come.

The fight for our Earth is joined. Tribes are still fighting to stop the industry from polluting water and land. In January 2012, the Havasupai won a 20-year ban to stop proposed uranium mines around Grand Canyon. Navajos are currently blocking a uranium transport through their lands.

Environmentalists, or anyone who cares about the air we breathe, can look toward Native Americans, who are standing up against the mightiest of corporations. Indigenous leaders continue to raise awareness on the dangers of uranium mining and the need to safeguard our environment. They are building support and uniting with other environmental and anti-nuclear activists to stop the mining industry from poisoning Mother Earth. This is a battle we must win!

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