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An Ongoing Battle: Fighting the Impacts of Uranium Mining in Southwestern Indigenous Communities

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Siena Fouse

Intern, Research and Publications

Indigenous communities in the Southwestern United States have been battling the impacts of uranium mining since the early 1940s. The geology of the Colorado Plateau was found to be rich in the radioactive mineral and drew mining to the area. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sought uranium to develop nuclear weapons during the Cold War, which fueled the interest of mining companies that opened uranium mines and mills on and around indigenous land. This was the start of an environmental justice issue spanning generations and continuing to impact indigenous communities today.

Indigenous communities were not told about the health risks uranium and radiation posed even though scientists and government officials knew of its hazards at the time. Tribes agreed to host mine sites and were hired as miners. Indigenous miners were underpaid, unethically treated as test subjects, and forced to do dangerous work without protective equipment. Miners and their families were exposed to uranium and radiation, causing health issues like bone cancer, kidney damage, and lung cancer.

While the 1979 Three-Mile-Island radiation event is well known, just three months later, the Puerco River saw the largest spill of radioactive material in U.S. history with little fanfare. A dam broke at a uranium mill site on the Navajo Nation reservation and caused widespread contamination. Mass death of livestock threatened their way of life. Navajo neuropathy, a disorder linked to uranium mining, caused muscle weakness, birth defects, and liver problems that often had fatal consequences. Adding further injury, the state denied the Navajo Nation disaster assistance for cleaning up the spill.

Lasting Consequences and Attempts to Redress

At the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, as U.S. government demand for building nuclear weapons ended, uranium mining operations ceased. However, the Uranium mineenvironmental degradation from mining activities continued and still continues today, extending an eight-decades-long public health crisis. Lasting health consequences have followed the miners and community members exposed to uranium and radiation. Mines were improperly sealed, resulting in water and soil contamination. Children swam in water collected in abandoned mine holes. Rock and material from the mines were used to build homes.

The close relationship indigenous communities have with the environment increased their vulnerability to the negative environmental health impacts associated with uranium mining. River water may be applied topically or ingested for ceremonial purposes and plants are used medicinally across indigenous land. These risks are further compounded by a lack of access to regulated drinking water in this region, as discussed in Cynthia Harris’ recent blog for Vibrant Environment.

Although a range of legislation could have been used to remedy the environmental damage and the public health harms caused by uranium mining, it failed to be properly applied in indigenous communities. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed in 1990 to provide former mine workers compensation for the health issues they face as a result to uranium exposure. However, indigenous miners’ applications for RECA are often denied, in part due to a language barrier and lack of documentation. Compensation for families of the miners who were exposed to radiation brought home on the miner’s clothes and materials was not included in the bill.

At the federal level, there are laws in place to remediate former uranium mines. The Uranium Mill Tailing Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA) was passed in 1978 to spur the cleanup of radioactive waste byproduct of uranium mining. This statute includes DOE’s Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA), which regulates post-operational activities at uranium mill sites under the supervision of the DOE Office of Legacy Management. However, UMTRA applies to a very limited number of sites. Ongoing radioactive contamination was reported in a 2007 study that showed that UMTRCA cleanup standards had not been met.

In the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, the Court held that Indian tribal courts did not have the authority to prosecute non-Indians unless specifically authorized by Congress to do so. In 2013, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which gave tribes jurisdiction over some domestic and dating violence crimes committed by non-Indians on reservations, but tribal court power remains very limited. Montana v. United States held that Tribes generally do not have regulatory authority over non-members on non-tribe-owned land even if it’s within the bounds of their reservation. Indigenous communities like the Laguna, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo people who have been impacted by uranium mining do not have authority to impose mining regulations on companies that are not on tribal land and are not tribal members.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act identifies responsible parties and provides funding for cleanup of toxic waste sites like the former uranium mines. However, of the roughly 520 abandoned uranium mines in Navajo territory, only around 219 of these sites have been funded for remediation. In mid-April of this year, EPA Administrator Wheeler added Navajo abandoned uranium mines to his Emphasis List of Superfund Sites, which displays sites where cleanup is still needed. The Navajo Nation created the Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Department to fulfill the requirements of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and remediate mine sites. However, this Act only addresses physical hazards and doesn’t seek to remedy groundwater contamination from the former mine sites.

Tribal laws that have been created to protect the health of indigenous communities from future uranium mining include the 2005 Diné Natural Resources Protection Act on the Navajo Nation, banning uranium mining on their land. The All Indian Pueblo Council submitted a resolution in 2007 to protect Mt. Taylor and other sacred sites in the area from future uranium mining.

Current Impacts and How to Avoid Repeating History

In southwestern states like Arizona and New Mexico, indigenous populations suffer higher mortality rates than other residents. Recent studies have found that people with cancer are more vulnerable to worse outcomes of COVID-19. Given that the effects of radiation exposure include lung cancer and bone cancer, there is reason to believe that the contamination from uranium mines and mills contributed directly to this increased COVID-19 vulnerability.

One way to protect indigenous communities from future environmental contamination would be to pass congressional legislation giving tribal governments the authority to regulate uranium mining in areas that would impact them. With their health and traditional way of life at stake, southwestern indigenous communities have a vested interest in cleaning up the mine sites and ensuring that any future uranium mining operations proceed in the safest way possible. While working to meaningfully address this environmental justice issue, it’s important to keep in mind the painful history and lasting social and cultural impacts of uranium mining in indigenous communities.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.