by Katy Bolger
Cold War-era uranium mining leaves a poisoned legacy for the Navajo
On the side of Gray Mountain in northeast Arizona, Lorraine Curley lives alone in a two-room concrete home. Her roof is tarpaper and tin, and her bathroom is a wooden outhouse 50 feet from her door. Living without electricity or water is a way of life for Curley; she has, after all, been restricted by the Bennett Freeze, a law enacted in 1966 that prevented 18,000 reservation residents from repairing their homes, or building new ones, until the freeze was lifted in May 2009.
Curley would like a new home, and she’s not picky: It doesn’t need to have electricity or running water—a floor and insulation would be nice.
“Maybe I’ll never see a home,” she said.
And at 79 years old, Curley is running out of time.
Curley is Diné, or Navajo, and like more than 180,000 others in her tribe, she lives on the reservation known as Navajo Nation, which spans a sprawling 27,000 miles stretched across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The land is also rich in highly sought-after natural resources, like coal and uranium, which has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. With its vast and breathtaking sandstone vistas and scrubby desert floor, the territory includes some of the prettiest land in America, but its people, scattered throughout, are some of the country’s most desperately underserved.
Because of its sovereign status, Indian territory is not regulated by federal environmental standards. In addition to oil and natural-gas drilling, the Nation was subjected to uranium mining from 1944 through 1986, when almost four tons of uranium ore was extracted for use in the arsenal build-up of the Cold War. It was mined without regard to the safety of the miners, the nearby residents, or even the mineral-rich land itself, resulting in the inevitable pollution of the air and water. As a consequence, the land they treasure so deeply has turned against the Navajo people, many of whom have developed severe health problems from drinking contaminated water and breathing contaminated air.
And then there’s the coal.
Since the mid-20th century, coal has been the primary source of energy for electricity-generating power plants around the world. Regardless of how it is measured, coal mining, and the process of converting coal into electricity, has proved to have a devastating environmental impact. Coal mining pollutes land and seeps into groundwater, while emissions from burning coal have been cited as one of the main sources of global warming. Currently, there are five coal mines on Navajo land, and two companies are fighting to open up two more—Black Mesa (which was closed in 2005) and Desert Rock.
Sithe Global, the multinational corporation looking to open Desert Rock, says the Navajo stand to make $52 million a year from the power plant, in addition to the income from new jobs. But in reality, with more than 90,000 people unemployed and thousands more underemployed, the Desert Rock plant will barely make a dent, offering jobs to just 300 workers. And although it is promoted as “clean coal,” a report by the Sierra Club estimates the emissions will poison the air, soil, and water forever with toxic chemicals including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and solid waste containing cadmium, selenium, arsenic, and lead.
With its wealth of natural resources, it would be easy to imagine the people of Navajo Nation are wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. But the tragic irony is that many are excruciatingly poor, having derived no profit, in personal terms, from any of the bounty of their land. There is a common misconception that the Navajo actually own the land on which they live, but in fact they don’t, which means they have no control, ultimately, over how it is managed, even though they have lived here for generations. Rather, it is held in trust by the U.S. government (or “in reserve,” thus the term “reservation”).
That arrangement has kept the Navajo people in a form of patriarchal colonialism since 1868, when the first treaty was signed. Unable to manage the land themselves, they were at the mercy of the U.S. government and its agreements with industry.
To Read the Rest of the Essay