On Poisoned Ground

Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley, Jr., addresses a crowd on the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the earthen dam at the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mill. (Associated Press)

Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley, Jr., addresses a crowd on the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the earthen dam at the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mill. (Associated Press)

A combination of lawsuits, agitation by miners’ widows and local nonprofits, and sympathetic news reporters brought the history of uranium mining and its consequences to light. The government eventually held hearings to gather information. Harris traveled to Grants, New Mexico, in 1979 to testify at one of the first hearings on occupational health hazards. By 1982 he was too sick to testify, and his final testimony was read by his son. Harris eventually slipped into a coma, and the son was left to watch his father waste away. “In the end,” Charley says, “I could carry him and hold him in my arms, like a small child.”

The lawsuit filed by Udall ultimately failed two years after Harris’s death, in 1988, when the Supreme Court refused to hear the final appeal, allowing a lower court ruling to stand. This 1985 ruling, while admitting the case “cries out for redress,” held that the government was immune to blame, protected by the “discretionary function” that allows it to disregard health consequences in some circumstances. Government responsibility was undeniable, especially since a government agency, the AEC, had been the only purchaser of uranium during the era of unventilated mines and the miner’s health studies. Congress soon passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which was signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. Perry Charley remembers the day President Bush called him from Air Force One to inform him he was signing the bill. Poignantly, says Charley, Bush called as he flew over the Trinity site, where the first atomic-weapons test was carried out on July 16, 1945.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which had argued against the implementation of RECA, was now forced to administer it. The act eventually included mill workers, atomic soldiers, and downwinders, but many were denied compensation because of cultural ignorance and the limitations of the act itself. For example, even ceremonial use of tobacco for nonsmokers left them ineligible for compensation. To further complicate matters the government insisted on birth and marriage certificates, which in many cases did not exist.

Then there was the question of the abandoned mines, which became Charley’s responsibility. The location of these mines was often in doubt owing to poor record keeping and the sheer number of small mining claims. Along with the large corporations, such as Kerr McGee and Vanadium Corporation of America, there existed small, independent Native American–owned uranium mines. These shallow mines employed one to two miners and were encouraged by the Navajo Tribal Council and Small Business Administration programs as part of the AEC’s efforts to stockpile uranium. The Navajo Abandoned Mines Lands Reclamation Department began a detailed inventory in 1989. Contaminated mining debris, or overburden, the rocks and materials displaced by the removal of uranium, were backfilled into the mine shaft, after which the mine entrance was covered with uncontaminated dirt and replanted with vegetation. Sometimes mine entrances were capped with concrete. The department successfully reclaimed almost 90% of abandoned mine sites situated close to homes and communities. Yet these mines and the remaining 10% continue to be of concern; their radioactive and toxic dangers are still being assessed.

Charley kept Udall informed as the environmental contamination came to light on the Navajo lands. He dealt with both mines and uranium mills since the mills also affected nearby communities, the contamination of which led to the Uranium Mill Tailing Radiation Control Act of 1978. “I spent most of my life following the trail of these mill processing sites,” says Charley of the 27 sites in 10 states, all but three covered by the act. (Four of the country’s 22 severely contaminated mill-tailings sites lie in the Navajo Nation.) “Under the land there are millions of gallons of contaminated water.” In addition, the unregulated mining burden, often containing radioactive debris and rocks, was left in unmarked piles on the Navajo lands; as much as 85% of their original radioactivity remains. Today, the EPA has authority to protect the public and the environment from exposure to these wastes, which are now classified as technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials.

Speaking Out

In 1996 Charley cofounded the Uranium Education Program at Diné College, a traditional Native American college, where he teaches students and continues his research. The ongoing legal and legislative fight over justice for the uranium miners turned Charley into an environmental and health contamination expert. He integrates traditional practices with scientific methods, such as asking for blessings to help in remediation of contaminated areas or before collecting ants for the Navajo Ant Project, the first study of ant biodiversity on the Navajo Nation. (The study has found new species and is a collaboration between Diné College and Harvard University). In addition, Charley and his students conduct bio-uptake studies at the college orchard and with various experimental plantings to better understand interactions between the contaminated mill-tailing water and the environment.

Charley has often spoken with officials and the public about the radioactive contamination and frequently visits the Navajo chapter houses to speak with Navajo about the issues. He has found funding for health and environmental studies, such as one by the March of Dimes that discovered there was an elevated risk for birth defects near mining sites. He also involved community members in testing for contamination; they found dangerous amounts of radioactivity in Navajo homes from the mine debris used as building materials and mixed into concrete for flooring. Elsie Mae Begay’s family hogan (a traditional Navajo home) was sufficiently radioactive to be considered nuclear waste by the EPA and was dismantled and removed in 2001 by men in radiation suits. Begay had lost two sons to rare cancers.