Yellow Dirt

A reporter uncovers the heartbreaking story of the uranium mining that poisoned Navajo lands and people.

Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed By Judy Pasternak Free Press/Simon & Schuster 317 pp, $26

This story will break your heart.

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.

Overall, contamination on Navajo land was the worst in our nation’s history.

In 1979, the entire Diné community of Church Rock, N.M., awoke to the sound of a 20-foot breach at United Nuclear dam, which sent 93 million gallons of radioactive liquid downstream, melting pipes, killing livestock, and spoiling water 50 miles away. It was the largest accidental release of radioactive material in US history, larger even than the near meltdown one month later at Three Mile Island – the accident that made world headlines.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dodged paying for cleanup around Church Rock, slipping through yet another loophole.

The first flicker of promise in this story appeared when Judy Pasternak, an investigative journalist at the Los Angeles Times, arrived with Geiger counter and notepad. Like the miners before her, she dug deep; she spent months reading, researching, listening to stories, and – the heartbreaking part – interviewing the four generations of elder Adakai’s extended family. She even enlisted the L.A. Times’s legal team to help wrangle data from the taciturn US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

When her series of articles ran in November 2006, it was the first time most people heard of the poisoned Navajo lands and people. Congressman Henry Waxman (D) of California, new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, got things rolling in Washington, and secured support from both Republicans and Democrats. Within months the EPA and BIA were under orders to start cleaning things up out West; money was allocated; “no” was no longer an acceptable answer. Thanks to the dogged efforts of one journalist and her extensive team, the Diné unearthed hope.

“Yellow Dirt” is a cautionary tale: How many more silent tragedies await discovery? How do we reconcile our appetite for natural resources, when others want those same resources for different purposes? As Navajo Milton Yazzie wrote, after losing a 10-year fight for clean water, and then losing his sister to cancer just as the US cleanup trucks moved in: “The elders were right, greed will unbalance what was right with nature in the first place.”

Pasternak’s book is not only an enormous achievement – literally, a piece of groundbreaking investigative journalism – but it also illustrates exactly what careful, painstaking, and risk-taking reporting should do: Show us what we’ve become as a people, and sharpen our vision of who we, the people, ought to become.

Elizabeth A. Brown writes from her home near Hillsborough, N.C.

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