The Environmental Problem: Uranium Mining in the Navajo Nation
The Navajo Nation is a semi-autonomous nation under the jurisdiction and control of the United States’ Federal Government. It lies on the northeastern portion of Arizona; southeastern, South Eastern part of Utah, and northwestern part of New Mexico. Among all semi-autonomous nations under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Federal Government, the Navajo Nation remains to be the largest in terms of land mass and area. Due to the complex landscape of the Navajo Nation, a lot of potential economically relevant sites, both for tourism, mining, and even agricultural purposes have been identified. Natural sights such as the Ship Rock in San Juan County, New Mexico, and the Antelope Canyon located in the North West portion of Page Arizona, for example, have been identified as key tourist destinations in the area.
One key characteristic of the Navajo Nation that is directly relevant to the issue that will be discussed in this paper would be the abundance of uranium deposits in the area. For years, the United States Federal Government is said to have heavily exploited that abundance in uranium. The Federal Government, through the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, encouraged American capitalists to make new ventures into the Uranium mining industry as well as companies that already ventured into the industry to expand their operations, after announcing that they (the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission) would be the sole buyer of all uranium mined from anywhere in the U.S. Such announcement only meant that the U.S Federal Government, through its arm, the Atomic Energy Commission, would be the sole end-user of all uranium deposits that would be extracted from the Navajo Nation.
The rationale behind such aggressive announcement was the nuclear arms race that the U.S. got into against its Cold War nemesis which was the already dissolved U.S.S.R. (The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) or the Soviet Union. One advantage that the Soviet Union had at the time is the fact that they already had various weapons grade uranium mining and enrichment program as well as facilities in their territories whereas the U.S. only had a few of such (uranium mining and enrichment programs and facilities). So, being the competitive country that it is, the United States decided to significantly expand its operations in the Uranium mining sector, after having figured that Uranium mining would serve as the backbone of their success in winning the nuclear arms race against Russia. If there would be one reason for the U.S. to fail in defeating its nemesis in the nuclear arms race during the cold war period; that would be the unexpected and unmitigated shortage of uranium, and later on enriched uranium because the U.S., at that time, was ahead of Russia by a few years in terms of uranium enrichment technologies. So, having a stable and preferably abundant supply of the element was identified as the key.
What the U.S. government did to act on this discovery was the aggressive stimulation of the Uranium industry in key U.S. areas. One of the identified hot spots for uranium mining was the Navajo Nation. Over the course of a few months, private mining contractors and business conglomerates have established mines in different areas in and around the Navajo nations. In the entire U.S. estimates suggest that there were over 4,000 mines with formal documentation of Uranium production, and another 15,000 locations with documented uranium occurrences .
Of course, those newly established mines would be of no use to the private contractors and then later on for the U.S. government’s nuclear arms race efforts without miners to do the dirty job and hazardous job of extracting uranium. The private mine operators during that time collectively hired thousands of Navajo mine workers. One thing to know about those recruited Navajo mine workers is the fact that most, if not all, of them were not capable of comprehending and speaking using the English language.
This study by the UPHS was the first one that showed direct and significant statistical correlation between being involved in Uranium mining operations and cancer prevalence rates .
Despite having discovered such important findings, mainly because such findings show that the miners’ health may be affected and in fact deteriorate as a result or consequence of being involved in the uranium mining operations, the UPHS failed to inform the mine workers about it. Some reports even suggest that evidences exist that can prove that the United States Public Health Service intentionally kept their 1950s findings about the health risks and consequences of Uranium finding from the public and more so for the recruited Navajo Nation miners, fearing that by doing so, the entire Uranium mining industry not just in the Navajo Nation but in other areas also, would destabilize.
Naturally, a destabilized uranium mining industry would pose as a risk to the success of the United States as a whole in its nuclear arms race against the Soviet Union. So in a way, in case such reports are telling the truth, the U.S. government has decided to put the interests of the government over that of the Navajo Nation uranium mine workers, whose lives and family members’ lives were put to stake or even claimed as a result of being exposed to the rampant uranium mining operations.
Existing Solutions for Uranium Mining Related Problems in the Navajo Nation
The people could not really expect the Navajo Nation tribal government, and even the members of the Congress, the Senate, and of other government agencies to participate in the creation of an effective and dynamic solution to the long term problem and to minimize its impact because they have already conspired with each other. For many years, the uranium mining administrators have lobbied with the politicians and policy makers just so that the uranium mining sector could continue to exist in an unregulated environment.
Now that the nuclear arms race is technically over, the government now faces with a host of environmental and health problems that it has to address, or face the consequences of being forever associated with issues of morality and ethics. One thing is for sure. What the government and the private mine operators did can never be considered right as it led to the destruction of homes and lives of the mine workers and their families; their household and also their environment.
One of the solutions that the government did to enhance the situation was to set a national standard in radon exposure. Radon is a harmful radioactive chemical that binds with the dust particles in the uranium mines and then gets inhaled by the mine workers. Over time, as the mine workers continue to work in poorly ventilated uranium mines, the radon deposit in their respiratory system accumulates. This paved way for the federal government to regulate the standard amount of radon in uranium mines to a level of 0.3 WL (Working Level). This regulation was passed in 1969 and still exists today. This regulation required prompted the private mine contractors to start controlling the radon levels in their mine and create a significantly better and safer working environment for the mine workers.
One of the solutions that the private mine contractors did was the improvement of the ventilations in the mines. This way, the concentration of dusts and radon in the mining environment could be significantly reduced. However, whatever amount of radon and radioactive dusts that has already been inhaled and deposited in the miners’ respiratory system would remain there for practically forever and could start causing problems in their health.
These regulations were all practically toothless because firstly, majority of the private mine owners and operators were still able to operate despite having very poor working environment standards, and even despite directly violating the new and practically useless regulations set by the government. Surely, the very few steps that the federal government took to protect the rights and welfare of the Navajo Nation miners have to be supplemented with additional regulations if the federal government really wants to make a difference.
It was not until the 1990s that the federal government, the senate, and the congress approved of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) under the administration of U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Under the provisions of the RECA, the U.S. government “offers an apology and monetary compensation to individuals who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases following their exposure to radiation released during above-ground atmospheric nuclear weapons tests or, following their occupational exposure to radiation while employed in the uranium industry during the build-up of the Cold War” .
This can be considered as a good sign because the ratification of this act signified that the U.S. government was finally ready to accept its shortcomings and wrongdoings in the series of events that happened in the Navajo Nation during the cold war period.
Other Different Proposed Solutions
Despite the implementation and the ratification of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, the collective efforts of the private uranium mining sector and the U.S. Federal Government still cannot be considered to be enough to compensate the losses of the people in the Navajo Nation . It has to be taken into consideration that it is not only the miners who got affected but everyone living in Navajo Nation, especially those living near the vicinity of the old and current locations of uranium mines.
The RECA has not contributed much in alleviating the affected people’s pain and losses because of the relatively tight implementation regulations that the government imposed . For example, a person currently living in the Navajo Nation could not be automatically considered as a beneficiary of the program and its compensations. One has to submit necessary documents such as birth certifications, employment certificates, and other evidences of involvement in the Navajo Nation private uranium mining industry.
Majority of the people who worked as uranium miners during the cold war period did not even know that these types of documents exist, let alone have them and keep them for so many years. The provisions under the RECA are indeed promising mainly because they work towards the main goal of alleviating the pain and compensating the losses inflicted on the miner workers in Navajo Nation and members of their family.
What some members of the congress and senators propose is to amend the current RECA, even after the ratification of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Amendment Act of 2000, during which the RECA was amended after suffering from heavy criticisms from different private and public sectors .
The new amendment to the RECA should include lighter and more lenient implementation regulations and procedures so that anyone who could prove to the agency responsible of administering and regulating all the processes involved in RECA could receive benefits without having to undergo long procedures , even if most of which are only red tapes. RECA in itself is the only thing that the government can offer, from a realistic point of view to the Navajo Nation uranium miners during the cold war and their family members because the damage has already been done and the new and updated standards in uranium mining have already been implemented. There is no point in mitigating a problem that has already been controlled for so many years.
So, the least that the government can do is to improve the provisions of and the compensations and benefits that the miners and their families can receive under the RECA; and also to lighten the implementation regulations so that the government can at least ensure that everyone who got affected can be compensated accordingly. Implementation regulation problems as well as provisional problems were the biggest problems that the previous administrations have reported regarding the administration of RECA . The current and next administrations’ move then should be targeted at these two problems.
Other alternative solutions would be the ramping up of the process of cleaning up and decontaminating the mines . Even though these uranium mines are already abandoned, they still pose as a significant health hazard to everyone living in and near their respective areas. The once gigantic uranium mining sector in the Navajo Nation has long been reduced by huge margins. Most of the scalar reductions occurred after the nuclear arms race ended; and then further when the cold war between the democratic and socialist countries officially ended.
The U.S. may have exhibited a competitive peat against the Russians in the nuclear arms race, thanks to the involuntary and uninformed sacrifices that the Navajo Nation uranium miners paid, but the end of the cold war period inevitably brought the government back to reality—the reality that it cannot escape from the consequences of its unethical operations in the Navajo Nation.
After having discovered the risks and consequences of uranium mining in the 50s, the private contractors and the government tried to tone down the findings in an effort to preserve the stability of the industry, despite knowing that the uranium mining operations were already killing the environment surrounding the between 4,000 to 15,000 mines; the water supplies as a result of being contaminated with radioactive earths and water ; the food supplies and the agricultural lands; and the supposedly healthy future of the mine workers and their families .
This only means that they, the abandoned uranium mines, also pose a threat to other people living in other relatively far areas especially if there are some abandoned mines that are located near flowing bodies of water such as rivers and seas. Accidental uranium-contaminated material spills could contaminate the water system and affect lots of people.
Even though this problem is already practically finished once the government has finished the cleaning up and decontamination process for all abandoned mines, there are still threats to the health and safety of communities that have to be carefully managed. Failing to plan and act on those risks would only lead to more disasters and problems.
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