Page 8 - The Noise August 2017
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A Toxic Burden on ArizonA:
AftermAth of UrAniUm mining on the nAvAjo nAtion
Water can be taken for granted, its availability and relative safety a give-in to a majority of people living within the United States and most of the developed world. Routine tasks — cooking, bathing, and laundry depend on the ease at which a citizen can access water ... nevermind using it to quench thirst after a hot summer’s day. But access to suitable water to fulfill basic needs is a struggle many people on the Navajo Nation face on a daily basis. Unsafe levels of uranium from mining operations have been steadily leaking into the water supply, increasing rates of miscarriage, birth defects, and cancer mortalities.
Uranium is a silver-colored heavy metal naturally occurring in the Earth’s crust — used as fuel for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons — with a half-life of 245,000 to 4.5 billion years. To imagine uranium in numbers puts this radioactive element in perspective. It is 40 times more abundant than silver, 500 times more abundant than gold, and 70 times denser than lead. As its remnants enter the body through contaminated water lines and aquifers, it permeates internal organs, accumulating deposits in the skeleton, spleen, kidneys, and liver. If present in particles of dust dancing through the air, its inhalation clings to the inner walls of the lungs, endlessly sifting in the delicate cilia.
Consequently, the prevalence of cancerous tumors in communities near uranium mines and mills just east on I-40 is 15 times the national average. While white, non-native people have a higher overall risk of developing all cancers, studies indicate that Native Americans living near uranium facilities have much higher rates of kidney, stomach, and gallbladder cancers. The current situation is a stark contrast to the health statistics gathered before the postwar uranium boom. In the 1930s, the medical community noted extremely low cancer rates and even suggested the Navajo were immune to cancer due to differences in diet and heredity. However, the ravaged environment is taking its toll on the people who call the Navajo Nation home. The cancer death rate on the Navajo Nation — historically much lower than that of the general US population — doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, according to Indian Health Service data. However, the overall U.S. cancer mortality rate declined slightly over the same period.
Mines on the Navajo Nation supplied uranium for the manufacturing of atomic bombs, and the stockpiling of nuclear warheads during the arms race with the Soviet Union. By stringent post-war laws, the federal government made itself the sole customer of uranium companies. Through the Atomic Energy Commission, it purchased uranium directly from the mines at buying stations located throughout the American Southwest. At the time, $3.50 was the price of one pound of uranium, so profits came from extracting uranium in large quantities.
Although the mining industry was aware of dangerous radioactive conditions in the mines and mills, companies deliberately avoided informing workers and residents who were at risk. A public health study conducted in 1959 found radiation levels 90 times great- er than acceptable limits in Navajo uranium mine workers. And unlike the uranium mines in Germany and the Czech Republic, the mining companies on the Colorado Plateau refused to install ventilation systems in mine shafts, which would have drastically reduced — but not eliminated — occupational exposure. At the time, miners were also not provided with protective gear, so they often brought radioactive dust to their homes on clothing and
The “Midnight Mine” | EPA
shoes at the end of their shifts. This not only continued the mineworkers’ contamination
from the workday, but also placed their families at risk.
From 1944 to 1986, Kerr-McGee and United Nuclear Corporation and other companies blasted, chiseled, and stripped over four million tons of uranium ore from Navajo lands to capitalize on Cold War-era demands. And after the demand for uranium waned from its peak, an overarching pattern suggests that these institutions intentionally dissolved or went bankrupt to evade responsibility for their unethical practices like criminals fleeing from a crime scene. United Nuclear’s annual reports shows it made over $61 million in 1968, indicating the mining companies’ prosperity.
America’s largest nuclear plant, Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, a lucrative fa- cility which lies south of Phoenix, provides electrcity to a growing base of over four million Arizona Public Service customers. Pinnacle West, the parent company of APS, reports $442 million in profits in 2016, up from $437 million the year prior. Nuclear energy ac- counted for between 18% and 29% of the energy generated by Pinnacle West in the last decade. During that same period, it reported operating revenue averaging $3.3 billion per year, with fuel expenses averaging $1.1 billion.
The fact 104 active nuclear reactors exist in the United States alone proves the uranium- hungry Atomic Age is not an obsolete relic of the 20th century. One ton of uranium creates 40 million kilowatts of electricity. At the current market rate of $45 per pound (set by the federal government), that values uranium at about $90,000 per ton.
Gjermundson Yazzie is one of the founders of Diné Relief Initiative (DRI), a non-profit organization geared toward helping children, the elders, and the environment through community engagement. Mr. Yazzie described how the water crisis affects the Navajo Na- tion, “We definitely know the struggle of how it is to be alone. The feeling of living alone on the rez, no running water or electricity. I know the struggles and how people suffer. It’s personal to me.” He elaborated on how the widespread lack of utilities feeds the vicious cycle of economic oppression in the Navajo Nation. “My family did not have running water until a couple of years ago. There’s no jobs. We apply to government assistance. They deny us of government assistance. They say get a job, and there’s no jobs. We need to pay for water and electricity, but they are the ones that turn it on.” His motivation is create a posi- tive effect on communities in need.”
An example of DRI’s outreach is a project in Sanders, Arizona. They distributed water bottles labeled with a comic strip designed to educate the students at Sanders Elementary School about uranium poisoning the water supply. The comic strip label tells a story with- out relying on language because many of the elders and younger children cannot read Diné or English. Mr. Yazzie noted, “Everyone understands art. Everyone learns visually.” The Su- perintendent shut down water fountains but still allowed the children to wash their hands with the radioactive water. This alarming policy caused a disagreement with the Superin- tendent and DRI.
The Superintendent claimed the children are safe because of reports that claim it takes 70 to 80 years of minute uranium exposure to reach fatal levels. However, Mr. Yazzie of- fered a counterpoint to the Superintendent’s argument: “Kids and the elders have a higher
8 • AUGUST 2017 | the NOISE arts & news |
Extraction Process for Uranium | EPA

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