Sunday, November 19, 2006
Article in today's Los Angeles Times -- A peril that dwelt among the Navajos, by Judy Pasternak. The article is the first part of a multi-part series. Here's an excerpt:
Fifty years ago, cancer rates on the reservation were so low that a medical journal published an article titled "Cancer immunity in the Navajo."
Back then, the contamination of the tribal homeland was just beginning. Mining companies were digging into one of the world's richest uranium deposits, in a reservation spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
From 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were chiseled and blasted from the mountains and plains. The mines provided uranium for the Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort to develop an atomic bomb, and for the weapons stockpile built up during the arms race with the Soviet Union.
Private companies operated the mines, but the U.S. government was the sole customer. The boom lasted through the early '60s. As the Cold War threat gradually diminished over the next two decades, more than 1,000 mines and four processing mills on tribal land shut down.
The companies often left behind radioactive waste piles and open tunnels and pits. Few bothered to fence the properties or post warning signs. Federal inspectors seldom intervened.
Over the decades, Navajos inhaled radioactive dust from the waste piles, borne aloft by fierce desert winds.
They drank contaminated water from abandoned pit mines that filled with rain. They watered their herds there, then butchered the animals and ate the meat.
Their children dug caves in piles of mill tailings and played in the spent mines.
And like the Holidays, many lived in homes silently pulsing with radiation.
Today, there is no talk of cancer immunity in the Navajos.