On Poisoned Ground

A sign along the Rio Puerco warns residents in English, Spanish, and Diné to avoid the water in Church Rock, New Mexico. Warnings were posted after the July 16, 1979, United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium tailings spill. (Associated Press)

A sign along the Rio Puerco warns residents in English, Spanish, and Diné to avoid the water in Church Rock, New Mexico. Warnings were posted after the July 16, 1979, United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium tailings spill. (Associated Press)

Men at Work

Perry H. Charley is a man whose life has been irrevocably altered by and intertwined with uranium. Like many other Native Americans, Charley was sent to boarding school as part of the U.S. government and Bureau of Indian Affairs efforts to assimilate Indians. At Shiprock Boarding School his hair was cut off, and he was treated with insecticide against lice. “I was told to never speak my language again, but I sit here today as a fluent-speaking Navajo,” Charley says. “To repair as best I can what was lost, that has been my life’s work.” The boarding school trained him as an upholsterer, but the intelligent and resentful boy fought his way into architectural drafting. When at home on school breaks, he soaked up knowledge about his culture.

Charley grew up hearing traditional origin stories. He was taught that the birth of the tribe was preceded by the choice between two yellow powders. The powder of the corn pollen was chosen, and the Navajo were instructed to leave the mysterious yellow dirt alone. But in 1919 native reservation lands were opened to leasing by the Secretary of the Interior, and prospecting began despite the sovereignty rights guaranteed by the U.S.-Navajo Treaty of 1868. The Vanadium Corporation of America began secret uranium mining for the atomic-bomb project on Navajo lands in 1943. At the time neither the miners nor the tribal leadership were told what they were mining. The top-secret status of the atom-bomb project and later cold-war security fears created a lasting imprint on nuclear culture that led to the withholding of information. Health studies on the miners and even the locations of the mines were kept secret.

When the mining began, the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo men hired as miners spoke little to no English and worked in the unventilated mines without protective gear, sometimes without even gloves. Government documents show that at least some hazards were recognized at the time, including the dangers of poor ventilation and the toxicity of uranium. But during the war the military ignored health concerns in the rush to obtain uranium. After the war state regulators and the Bureau of Mines lacked the authority and the expertise to regulate radiation. The more powerful U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) along with the mining industry disputed the accumulating scientific evidence linking radon to cancer, until miner deaths, on the Indian reservations and beyond, reached into the hundreds and proved impossible to ignore. Only in 1969 did the federal government institute labor regulations to protect all uranium miners.

In the meantime instruments recorded high radon counts in the mines owing to the lack of ventilation, a lack noted on the occasional visits by state and federal health authorities. Indian miners in particular received no health warnings, drank water from cracks in mine walls, ate their lunch in the often just blasted mine, and returned home covered in a fine layer of yellow uranium dust. They sometimes used rocks and debris from the mining sites as building materials.

When Perry Charley was 14, his father, Harris Charley, moved out of the house to a brush arbor, a traditional temporary shelter built away from the home. In Navajo culture death contaminates the home; so when Charley returned from school and saw his father in the arbor, he immediately understood his father was dying. Harris struggled to explain his mysterious illness, which his son later discovered to be respiratory failure from fibrosis of the lung, a disease with which the Navajo had no experience. “My father was diagnosed with some disease, a lung problem, that was not explained and he could not understand,” says Charley. Like many of the ill miners, Harris was fired from the mine as soon as he became sick. During his father’s long illness, which ended with his death in 1986, Charley discovered the trajectory of his life. “I wanted to know why it happened and who was responsible for what my dad was subjected to. Those thoughts took me on a long, long course . . . that I continue to follow even to this day.”

Charley, who prefers to describe himself as a simple sheepherder, earned a B.S. in environmental science in 1979 from the University of Arizona. He came to the attention of Stewart Udall, who had served as Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969. Udall retained Charley as an investigator for his law firm, researching information about miners who were falling ill on the Navajo lands. The two found documents from a secret study initiated by the Indian Health Service and the Public Health Service. “We saw a list,” says Charley. “It is still so vivid in my mind, a list of thousands of names of miners who were studied, without their knowledge or consent. The first study began in 1949 to see what would happen to them in the uranium mines with high concentrations of radon.” Of the 3,415 names listed in the secret study of miners throughout the Southwest, 779 were Indian. “I started to see the names of people I knew, Begays, Benallys, and then . . . I saw my dad’s name.”

Even after the study confirmed the dangers and the links between uranium mining and cancer, the miners were never told. Charley says the documents showed the government had “decided to . . . not inform participants because it would have caused a mass exodus from the mines.” Instead, the study was used to establish allowable doses and regulatory health standards for future miners and nuclear workers. “The miners were sacrificed as guinea pigs,” says Charley.

Udall filed several lawsuits in 1979 on behalf of the widows of the miners and of miners sick and dying of cancer, including Harris, whose medical records showed a cumulative exposure of 1,192 working level months (WLMs). The WLM is a defined measurement of worker exposure to alpha radiation from the airborne decay of radium, which is found in uranium ores. As the radium decays, it produces dangerous radon gas that then itself decays, emitting radioactive ions that adhere easily to lung tissue. For comparison the United States no longer allows exposure of over four WLMs per year, and a respirator is required if a person is working in a mine for more than one WLM. Harris would have had to work for 298 years to remain within the safety standards for his cumulative exposure.