This paper, originally published in 1991, is a report on the September 1990 meeting at the Cove Chapter House on the Navajo Reservation organized by the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum in cooperation with the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee.
Report on the 4th Indigenous Uranium Forum
by Kerry Richardson
Uranium! It was said to be a miracle metal, they called it essential to national security. The uranium ore could be found as yellow deposits in a matrix of sandstone rock. Deposits that triggered geiger counters were found in the hills above Cove, Arizona. The mining companies hired Navajo Indian men from Cove to remove the ore from the ground, the first step in the industrial process that results in atomic bombs and nuclear power plant fuel.
Located on the Navajo Reservation, Cove is a rural community of scattered small houses and hogans several miles from the end of the paved road that runs west from U.S. 666 south of Shiprock, New Mexico. Uranium mining in this area of the reservation started around 1946 and continued into the 1960's, and some of the miners also worked in mines in Utah and Colorado. Some U.S. Government officials knew there were health consequences to mining uranium, but it was many years before there were any safety regulations concerning radiation exposure to the workers. By the mid 1960's reports were appearing in scientific journals documenting many fold increases in lung cancer occurrence among the uranium mine workers in the Southwest United States.
On September 28 and 29, 1990, about forty years after those first uranium mines opened, some of the miners who were still alive, and some of the widows of miners who had died from lung cancer, were meeting at the Chapter House in Cove. The building was the meeting place of the local branch of the Navajo tribal government and was of recent construction, not near any dwelling, and sagebrush grew in the surrounding fields.
Inside, those testifying at the open mike frequently were overcome by emotion as they told of the suffering and hardships that had befallen their families. As they spoke some of the men would gesture toward the hills to the Southwest where they had labored in the mines known as Mesa I, Mesa II, Mesa III, Mesa IV, and Mesa V.
The meeting was conducted almost entirely in the Navajo language. For the older generation there, English was a second language. Many of the women wore the distinctively Navajo long skirts and silver and turquoise jewelry. The older men present had worked in the mines, hauling rock out of tunnels in the sides of cliffs. The speeches continued on without a break as mutton stew was served during lunch.
The moderator, Phil Harrison, explained that the concept of radioactivity is not easily explained in the Navajo language. He knew from his personal experience that not only the miners were exposed to radiation, but also their families, since the men would come home from the mines with dusty clothes. In the winter the clothes would hang in the kitchens of the small homes. The families didn't know about the radioactivity of the mud. In the mines the workers were breathing the dust, walking in the mud, sometimes drinking water that trickled down the rocks. They were not informed of the dangerous nature of the material they were mining. Often there were three shifts a day laboring to produce their quota of ore for the Government's atomic weapons program.
A mechanism of radiation injury by uranium was explained by the U.S. Department of Labor in the February/March 1979 issue of their magazine, Mine Safety & Health:
"The invisible, deadly threat of radiation in mining comes primarily from the presence of radon, a gaseous decay product of the uranium series found in all uranium mines, and in varying degrees in certain other types of mines."
"In uranium mines, radiation usually comes directly from the ore. But radon that permeates host rock surrounding the ore can also diffuse from rock surfaces into the mine air or travel in water that seeps into a mine."
"On entering the mine atmosphere, the radon continues to decay to form airborne radioactive "daughters" which usually are positively charged, atomic sized particles."
"Because of their size and nature, the solid radon daughters tend to attach to respirable dust and other condensation nuclei in the mine atmosphere. When a miner inhales this air, part of the dust is deposited in the lungs and breathing passages where the attached radon daughters continue to decay, emitting alpha radiation which damages the lung tissue."
The meeting at the Cove Chapter house was initiated by the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum and it was the third in a series of annual meetings held right at the areas most impacted by uranium development. The year before they had met near Mt. Taylor, New Mexico where the Chevron Corporation was reopening their deep shaft uranium mine in anticipation of supplying uranium to Japanese electric utilities. Two years before, the meeting was held in cooperation with the Havasupai Tribe who are fighting the Energy Fuels Nuclear company's uranium mine on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
The Indigenous Uranium Forum was founded by native peoples including American Indians and Australian Aborigines who were attending the First Global Radiation Victims Conference in New York City in 1987. The IUF opposes mining uranium and advocates leaving it in the ground. Anna Rondon, a Navajo Indian who lives near Gallup, New Mexico, was the main IUF organizer for the meeting at Cove and attended the conference with her baby. Rondon is involved in networking with organizations of victims of radiation in Europe and Japan, and is helping with plans for a World Uranium Hearing to be held in Austria in September of 1991.
The local participants in the conference had been organized for several years. Their Uranium Radiation Victims Committee is composed of residents of the area, former uranium miners and widows and surviving family members of miners who had died. For over ten years they had been involved in a struggle to gain recognition of and compensation for the injuries and suffering caused by work in the mines. There was finally some progress to report after years of unsuccessful lawsuits, failed legislation, and Congressional hearings. The United States Congress had just passed The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and it would soon receive President Bush's signature, making it law.
The miners spoke of shortness of breath, of last weeks x-ray showing a spot on the lung. The widows and their daughters spoke of raising their families without a husband's help, of children losing their Navajo language skills without a grandfather there to speak it with them. Some of the women would have no one to help them with firewood this winter. Money couldn't change these things, but it might bring some relief, and the meeting served to help inform the people of provisions of the new law.
Also, that summer the Navajo tribal government had started two projects of importance to the community. Representatives from the Tribe's Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Project and from The Office of Navajo Uranium Workers talked about their programs. The Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Project, that had been mainly dealing with coal mines, was identifying abandoned uranium mine sites on the reservation. Their field survey involved taking radiation measurements one meter above the surface of the ground in the area of each site. The readings would be part of the data used in their computer to rank all the sites from the most to the least hazardous.
Two months after the Cove meeting, an employee of the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Project said that their field inventory had been completed in October, their rankings were being compiled and a report was due in the spring of 1991. They had identified 911 uranium mines on the main part of the reservation including exploratory diggings. 229 sites had been identified in the vicinity of Cove, with another 230 in nearby Red Valley and Oak Springs. Most of the sites near Cove were in the mountains above the community at an elevation of about 6,500 to 7,000 feet above sea level. The road access to the mines had often deteriorated so the survey crew used all terrain vehicles.
The Office of Navajo Uranium Workers has a small staff and an office at Red Valley to work on issues concerning Navajo uranium mine and mill workers. (After the ore was mined, it was transported to mills where the rock was crushed and the uranium chemically concentrated in preparation for further stages in the industrial process) The ONUW was directed by the tribal government to do four things: to coordinate activities about uranium issues with the various parties involved, for instance the community, legislators, the victims committee, and the media; to compile a registry of all the Navajo workers in the mines and mills, past and present, living and dead; to keep the public informed about the compensation bill, The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act; and to establish health services for the population affected by the uranium industry.
ONUW Project Director Mike Begay considers the health care services available to the mining communities to be poor. For instance, he says there is only one pulmonary (lung) specialist to serve the entire reservation at the Shiprock Public Health Service Hospital, and that physician has general care responsibilities, so is only half time in the specialty. In addition the Shiprock hospital is not equipped to perform the full range of pulmonary tests, and patients sometimes must travel hundreds of miles to Albuquerque for treatment. Epidemiological studies indicate an unmistakable cluster of lung cancer cases in the vicinity of Shiprock and Cove.
In November, 1990 Mike Begay said that so far the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers has mainly been working on establishing the registry of those who worked in the mines. They have been holding meetings in various communities near uranium facilities, publicized by local newspapers and radio stations. Begay estimated that in the area of Cove and Red Valley they had registered about 90 miners and that there are about that many miners from those communities not yet registered.
In cases where it is clear that the miners or their survivors meet the requirements for compensation established by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, ONUW has referred them to lawyers to start the claim process, even though the Congress had not yet appropriated the money authorized in the law. Begay explained that in the 1950's and 60's, there was, every few years, some monitoring of radiation levels and worker exposure by government agencies, so in some cases there are existing government records that will help document eligibility of individual workers. It had not been determined yet how to document claims by mine workers who were not present at the time government record keeping took place.
The compensation law for uranium miners applies to mine workers in five states who worked during the period between January 1, 1947, and December 31, 1971. It specifies that to be eligible for the $100,000 payment, the miners or their heirs must have written medical documentation of the miner developing lung cancer or certain non-malignant respiratory diseases after having been exposed to 200 or more working level months of radiation, if they are non smokers. The exposure levels required are higher for smokers. The working level month is a defined measurement of worker exposure to alpha radiation from airborne radon daughters, radioactive decay products of uranium.
The 200 WLMs is a very large exposure. In 1972 Federal mine safety regulations limited worker exposure to 4 WLMs per year based on the reasoning that over a career of 30 years a miner would be limited to an exposure of 120 working level months. So, to be eligible for compensation, the early miners must have been exposed to considerably more radiation than current miners are allowed to receive in their entire lifetimes in the mines. Mike Begay said that records indicate that in the early mines a 200 working level month exposure could be obtained in a four to six year period and in some cases an exposure of 100 working level months was obtained in a year. There are studies that indicate increased rates of lung cancer at exposures below 120 working level months. The compensation act does not at present mention the uranium mill workers.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act also provides for money for some residents of a limited portion of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona who contracted certain types of cancer following above ground nuclear tests in Nevada that were conducted in the 1950's and early 1960's. The bill also contains an apology by the Congress on behalf of the Nation for the hardships endured by the individuals the bill would compensate.
Details of the U.S. Government's knowledge that uranium mining would likely damage or kill the early workers were reported by the New York Times on January 9, 1990 and by Newsweek on June 18, 1990. There were scientific studies published in Europe in the 1920's documenting that uranium miners were dying of lung cancer, and before 1950, U.S. scientists had identified radon in uranium mines as a carcinogen, but the government's Atomic Energy Commission had its own stable of kept scientists who discounted this evidence, and scientists who didn't toe the government line weren't tolerated. The Times reported that "Several Public Health Service researchers and at least one Atomic Energy Commission official who sought to make public the plight of the miners were censured or lost their jobs in the late 1940's and early 1950's."
When Public Health Service scientists undertook an ongoing occupational health study in 1954 of 4,138 U.S. uranium mine workers, the scientists knew the fate awaiting the workers, but agreed not to tell them why they were being studied. The scientists wanted to be able to complete the study without suppression, and the Atomic Energy Commission didn't want its uranium supply slowed by a worried labor force. To date, more than 400 of the miners studied by the Public Health Service have died of lung cancer, and many more deaths are expected.
The mines near Cove have been abandoned for many years. In addition to lung cancers, there have been reports of gastrointestinal cancers in the area, and of an increase in birth defects. In the 1970's and 1980's there were many huge mines and mills opened in the area near Grants, New Mexico about 100 miles Southeast of Cove. Built to fuel nuclear power plants, the mines and mills in the Grants mineral belt are now shutdown due in part to conditions in the worldwide market for uranium. The nuclear industry can get it cheaper someplace else. About 160 miles to the west of Cove, uranium development is underway on the rim of the Grand Canyon.