Uranium Mining & Local Communities
“Uranium mines and mills have operated on or near our communities for over 50 years. Located in the heart of the Grants Mineral Belt the experience of uranium mining and milling created devastating impacts to the environment, human health, which will last for generations to come. The history of uranium mining has also created social and economic change that has impacted our tradition, culture and spirituality.” – A Statement by the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum (1)
The nuclear fuel cycle in the US, from mining, to milling, to enrichment, creates not only an immense amount of radioactive waste, but also poses a significant health threat to those working and living in and near nuclear industrial sites. Lack of awareness or refusal to tell employees of the health risks of uranium mining has led to increased and pervasive health problems for certain populations. Indigenous peoples of the Southwest who have been forced into economic hardship due to the disruption of their traditional life-ways and encroachment on their land base by centuries of Spanish, Mexican and American colonialism, were the primary labor force to work in the Uranium mines. When the mining industry first came to New Mexico in the first half of the 20th century, it promised jobs to populations who were hard hit by poverty, but did not inform any of the workers of the potential risks of uranium mining.
Before uranium mining boomed in the Southwest, lung cancer was very rare among Native Americans there. A paper from 1982 entitled “Lung Cancer among Navajo uranium miners” (2) looks at the concurrence of Diné (Navajo) males who sought medical attention for lung cancer between February 1965 and May 1979, and those who worked in uranium mines. Of 17 patients, 16 worked in uranium mines, and one did not. Over half of these men suffered from small cell undifferentiated lung cancer. Furthermore, this report finds that a statistically significant number of early miners developed this type of cancer after exposure to uranium ore. Uranium ore naturally decays into Radon-222, which has been identified as a cancer causing agent. (3) Other studies report increased likelihood of kidney disease, diabetes, lung and renal cancers, deformities, birth defects, chromosome aberrations, and leukemia for populations living near uranium mines and mills. (4)
In addition to the health effects described above by western scientists, uranium mining, as well as other mining and resource extraction, serves to harm the people native to the Southwest in deeper and more resonating ways. Uranium mining necessitates the development of the earth that goes against the fundamental belief systems of the First Nations of the Southwest, one which is, speaking in generalizations, predicated upon maintaining balance and harmony with the earth. This abrogation of belief systems is intensified when the mines are built over or into sacred sites. Development on sacred sites disrupts the Pueblo people’s ability to continue practicing the rites and ceremonies that are essential to preserving the balance of the universe, according to their beliefs. By dislocating a people from their land base, these peoples are also dislocated from their cultural and spiritual practices. This disruption serves to continue the long process of cultural genocide against the indigenous peoples of the Southwest; a colonial and genocidal history that also includes (but is not limited to): forced sterilization, medical testing, children forced into foster homes and boarding schools, relocation to urban areas under the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, among others. When stated and overt national legislation and policy actively pursues the extinguishment of a people’s family structure, language, culture, and spirituality, this is called genocide by the Geneva Conventions.(5)
Take for example the Chevron mine, which was the world’s deepest uranium mining shaft. This mine was built into Mount Taylor, which is a sacred site for the Navajo, Acoma, Laguna and Zuni peoples. Manuel Pino speaks more on this subject in his address at the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg. (6) Another prime example would be Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, which was built upon an area, now restricted from public use, that encompasses thousands of shrines and sacred sites for the neighboring San Ildefonso and other Pueblo peoples. By destroying, polluting, and keeping people from sacred sites, the existence of Los Alamos National Laboratory is in itself an ongoing act of genocide, a crime against humanity.
“For nations who ground their identity on an intimate connection to the earth, and utilize plant metaphors to describe their origin and engagement with the universe, the effects of the plutonium economy are not only quantifiable health risks, but also the unique cosmological repercussions of a material and symbolic colonization, of discovering a radioactive plant, a vanished shrine, a polluted spring, or a toxic honeybee on ancestral lands.” — From Joseph Masco’s “The Nuclear Borderlands.” (7)
(1) From: http://www.siuf.net/about.html; accessed 13 Mar 2010.
(2) Gottlieb, LS; LA Husen (1982-04-01). “Lung cancer among Navajo uranium miners”. Chest 81 (4): 449–452. doi:10.1378/chest.81.4.449. http://www.chestjournal.org/cgi/content/abstract/81/4/449. Retrieved 13 Mar 2010.
(3) Harley, Naomi; Ernest Foulkes, Lee H. Hilborne, Arlene Hudson, C. Ross Anthony (1999). “Chapter 2: Health Effects”. A Review of the Scientific Literature As It Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses. RAND Corporation. pp. Volume 7: Depleted Uranium. http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1018.7/mr1018.7.chap2.html. Retrieved 13 Mar 2010.
(4) Reports can be found at: http://www.wise-uranium.org/uhr.html; accessed 13 Mar 2010.
(5) The Geneva Conventions define genocide, in part, as: “inflicting on members of the group conditions of life intended to destroy them, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and taking group members’ children away from them and giving them to members of another group.” Genocide is a crime against humanity. From: <a href=”http://www.hrweb.org/legal/undocs.html#CAG
“>http://www.hrweb.org/legal/undocs.html#CAG</a>; accessed 15 Mar 2010.
(6) Pino, Manuel. Address at the World Uranium Hearing. Featured in “Poison Fire, Sacred Earth: TESTIMONIES, LECTURES, CONCLUSIONS.” THE WORLD URANIUM HEARING; SALZBURG (1992). http://www.ratical.com/radiation/WorldUraniumHearing/ManuelPino.html, accessed 13 Mar 2010.
(7) Masco, Joseph (2006). “The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post Cold-War New Mexico.” Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.