A reporter uncovers the heartbreaking story of the uranium mining that poisoned Navajo lands and people.
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Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed by Judy Pasternak traces 80 years of uranium mining and its lethal aftereffects on Navajo residents living near “Four Corners,” where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico intersect. It’s a tragic story that’s not over yet: As recently as 2008, some 4,000 Navajos were still drinking water from wells contaminated by years of industrial greed and US governmental neglect.
The gripping tale begins in the 1930s, with wise Navajo patriarch Adakai saying no to white prospectors asking permission to mine the yellow dirt – leetso, in Navajo – found inside the strange, heavy rocks dotting his family’s hallowed landscape. But Adakai’s son and others later buckled under pressure to support the US war effort, signing away mineral rights. They were never told what the leetso is, (uranium), nor what the US government planned to do with it (build bombs).
Of course, not much money appeared, but the jobs did: Hundreds of Navajo men went to work daily, deep in unventilated mines where they hand-separated embedded uranium, breathed radon fumes, and watched their children play with leetso rocks. At lunchtime, they didn’t bother to wash their dusty yellow hands. The miners had no idea they were handling – and ingesting – radioactive minerals, and their employers didn’t bother to tell them.
It was a race for cheap weapons of mass destruction. Vanadium Corporation of America and the US Atomic Energy Commission kept their lips sealed about mining hazards; those few souls who dared to speak up were dismissed or transferred to new jobs. From 1944 to 1986, Navajo lands yielded nearly 4 tons of uranium ore for the US government.
Ironically, the sacred earth of the peaceful Diné – the People, as the Navajo call themselves – helped to fill the bombs that obliterated 200,000 Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Worse still: Forty years later, tests would confirm that those Navajo uranium miners suffered cumulative exposure to radiation at rates 44 times higher than the rate found among Japanese survivors.
The miners weren’t the only ones affected. Women, children, and livestock consumed radioactive water; the whole community ate tainted meat and crops. Things got even worse as the cold war ended and the appetite for uranium subsided. Mining companies moved out, leaving behind enormous piles of “tailings” – scraps of yellow dirt mixed in with clay and other soils. Families scooped up this leetso dust when they discovered it made fine, smooth walls and floors; soon it appeared in dozens of hooghans – Navajo homes –across the reservation, unwittingly creating radioactive caves in which babies crawled and families grew. Yet as birth defects appeared and cancer rates skyrocketed, no one connected the dots. The Diné did not blame leetso; why would they? The few people in the US government who’d detected dangerous levels of radiation in miners’ bodies, in livestock, and in water sources, never shared that information with the very people who needed it most.