Native American Uranium Miners Still Suffer, As Industry Eyes Rebirth

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In These Times

Native American Uranium Miners Still Suffer, As Industry Eyes Rebirth

by
Kari Lydersen

Elsie Mae Begay (bottom second from right) and others at the Indigenous Uranium Forum have testified about the continued effects of uranium mining on their communities. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

ACOMA,
NEW MEXICO-On the Navajo Nation, almost everyone you talk to either
worked in uranium mines themselves or had fathers or husbands who did.
Almost everyone also has multiple stories of loved ones dying young
from cancer, kidney disease and other ailments attributed to uranium
poisoning.

The
effects aren't limited to uranium miners and millers; whole families
are usually affected as women washed their husbands' contaminated
clothes, kids played amidst mine waste and families even built homes
out of radioactive uranium tailings.

For
years the government has had a program to compensate uranium workers
(and "down-winders" affected by nuclear weapon testing). And the
federal government is slowly cleaning up contaminated land.

But as evidenced at the Indigenous Uranium Forum here
this weekend, the uranium industry that flourished in this region from
the 1940s through 1980s continues to take a heavy toll on workers and
their descendants. (An investigative piece in the LA Times shed light on the situation.)

At
the forum, Navajo, Pueblo and other Native Americans remembered family
members killed by uranium and lamented that most have still not
received any form of compensation, even as many still live on
contaminated land that poses an ongoing health risk.

Government
compensation is limited to people working before 1971. The idea is that
after that date the risks were known and hence the government isn't
responsible for poor working conditions that exposed miners excessively
to the radioactive heavy metal.

In
September, a delegation of grandmothers traveled to Washington D.C. to
lobby legislators for compensation for "post 71" miners and their
dependents.

"People
said you grandmothers can't make it, it's a really long walk," said
Elsie Begay, who grew up in a canyon in Arizona downstream of a uranium
mine. Her father, a miner, died of cancer and she thinks all her
siblings' health is affected by drinking and bathing in contaminated
water from the arroyo that ran by their home. "But we did it. We talked
to those politicians, and they promised to do something so I think they
will."

For
many of the women, it was their first time on a plane, subway or
escalator. They happily described holding up impatient lobbyists and
politicians at government building security checkpoints as they removed
all their turquoise and silver jewelry.

Elsie Mae Begay, no relation to Elsie Begay, has brought much attention to the issue by traveling with the documentary Return of Navajo Boy, produced by Chicago-based Groundswell Films.
It tells the story of her brother John Wayne Cly, who was taken off the
reservation by white missionaries after both parents died of lung
cancer, and his return to his family decades later.

It
also chronicles the painstaking struggle for miners' compensation, and
the tragic catch-22 families like Elsie Mae's are put in knowing their
homes are contaminated but having nowhere else to go.

The
uranium industry nearly stopped in the late 1980s as prices plummeted,
but now many companies are seeking to again mine in the southwest,
anticipating rising prices in the near future. (Uranium hit record
prices in 2007 but then dropped when the recession hit.)

Uranium
company officials say current mining practices are much safer than in
the past, and jobs in the area are badly needed. Most Native Americans
in the uranium belt are intensely opposed to a resurgence in the
industry. (Uranium mining is also being proposed in Alaska, where the
environment and health versus jobs argument in terms of resource
extraction is a defining feature of the state's economy. Proposed mine
sites are near Alaska Native land, and the industry could impact their
traditional fishing and other practices.)

Larry
King is a post-71 miner suffering breathing and other health problems,
but he says he can't get any assistance for expensive tests or
treatment. Meanwhile new mining is proposed near his home, an "in situ"
process where uranium is sucked out of an aquifer, which industry
officials say is much less environmentally disruptive.

King doesn't believe it, and he resents that the company is trying to win support by promising jobs.

"They
are dividing families," he said. "They'll promise you big bucks, but
they will destroy our aquifer and then leave the community to deal with
it."

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