Environmental Justice for the Navajo : Uranium Mining in the Southwest

The Navajo Nation, New Mexico

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Mining for minerals in the Navajo Nation began around the end of World War I. The Carrizo Mountain area, about 30 miles west of Shiprock, New Mexico, was rich in vanadium, an ore first mined in 1918 (Benally Sr., 1995). The mines where vanadium extraction was taking place were also lined with a soft yellow metal ore that did not seem to hold much potential. Little significance was attached to uranium in 1918, it was simply stacked in bags in the mines and pushed to the side. However, in just a few years time, the demand for uranium would begin. No one could have predicted the increase in demand that would take place over the next 30 years.

In the early 1920s, the first uranium extraction began on the Navajo nation, when the United States government opened it up to exploitation. Wealthy companies with the ability to invest resources were allowed to remove materials. These initial mining facilities ceased operation in 1923, when rich sources of cheap uranium were discovered in the Belgian Congo (Watson, 1996).

Mining began in earnest in the Southwest United States after World War II, when atomic weapons were being developed. Escalation of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union sent workers to uranium mines to mine the ore for processing into nuclear weapons.

More than 15,000 people have mined uranium or worked in ore processing mills in the Southwest since the 1940s (Watson, 1996). Some 13 million tons of uranium were mined while the mines were in operation. The Vanadium Corporation of America and Kerr-McGee were the principal owners of these mines, and the ones responsible for the mistreatment of Navajo workers (Benally Sr., 1995). Not only were Navajos paid low wages, but they were not informed about the hazardous affects that uranium was having on their lives (Benally Sr., 1995).

Navajo Attitudes Toward the Resource

In the Navajo creation story, there is mention of uranium. Uranium - called "cledge" - is from the underworld, and is to be left in the ground ("Uranium, the Pentagon and ..." 1995). According to the creation story, the Navajo were given a choice between yellow corn pollen and uranium. In Navajo belief, the yellow corn pollen possesses the positive elements of life ("Uranium, the Pentagon and ..." 1995). The pollen is prayed for and carried in medicine bags. Uranium was thought of as an element of the underworld that should remain in the earth. When uranium was released from the ground, Navajos believed it would become a serpent ("Uranium, the Pentagon and ..." 1995). Evil, death and destruction were seen as the problems the Navajo would face. These problems have become reality to the Navajo since mining began. Many Navajo see themselves on the brink of disaster as removal of uranium suggests will occur to those people ("Uranium, the Pentagon and ..." 1995).

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Life on reservations in the Southwest is tough. Work is whatever and wherever people can get it. One Navajo, the director of the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers Timothy Benally Sr., tells the story about work :

"On the reservation back in the 1940s and 1950s, jobs were pretty scarce. In 1958, I had just returned from the Armed Services. I couldn't find a job and I had a chance to get into the mines. The first time, after about three months, I complained about the safety of the mines. The boss didn't like it, so he said at the end of the work week, "Don't come back on Monday." So I didn't. Then the mine ownership changed. Kerr-McGee took over, and I applied for a job and got work again. Again I complained, this time about the wages. I said the federal law requires that the workers be paid $1.25 an hour and these people are getting anywhere from 80 to 90 cents and hour for their labor. Again I got fired (Benally Sr., 1995)."

Despite the fact that miners were not paid enough and that they worked in dangerous conditions, miners continued to mine uranium. In many cases, miners were forced to return to mines that had been blasted just half an hour before (Watson, 1996). These factors were not enough to stop Navajos from working, as they needed the money to support their families.

The miners that worked in uranium filled mines have a very high incidence of cancer relative to the rest of the United States population. Though the Navajo workers and families noticed this in the 1950s, bureaucrats dragged their feet, and companies disregarded warnings. The miners, especially the Navajo miners, were kept from receiving compensation for the suffering they went through.

Requirements For Compensation

In 1990 a law was passed known as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 (RECA) (Eichstaedt, 1994). The law required $100,000 in "compassion payments" to uranium miners diagnosed with cancer or other respiratory ailments (Eichstaedt, 1994; Benally Sr., 1995). To qualify for compensation, a miner had to prove that s/he had worked in the mines and was now suffering from one of the diseases on the compensation list (Eichstaedt, 1994; Benally Sr. 1995).

Government Hinders Compensation

Getting the money that was their due was very difficult for the Navajo uranium miners. The government imposed certain guidelines on claims to be filed that were dictates of the mainstream society. All medical records filed by claimants had to be certified (Eichstaedt, 1994). For the Navajo, the certification process immediately became a monumental and time-consuming barrier (Eichstaedt, 1994). The process of certification had little effect on non-Indian claimants, as records from private hospitals were being secured and certified in less than a week in most cases (Eichstaedt, 1994). Adding to the problems faced with the certification process, the justice department refused to recognize traditional Navajo marriages, because they did not include a piece of paper filed with the local county or tribal government (Eichstaedt, 1994). Establishing a work history was also exceedingly difficult for Native Americans. In many cases, Navajo people did not keep records, because wages were low and the amount earned was not enough to pay income tax on (Eichstaedt, 1994). Obtaining accurate readings on the radiation and radon levels in the mines years after mining had stopped was also difficult and slowed the application process for compensation even more. It is clear that without the help of attorneys capable of fighting government bureaucracy that few Navajos would ever be compensated (Eichstaedt, 1994).

Picture by : Time Traveler's Map

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Key Actors

Atomic Energy Commission

The part of the United States government interested in obtaining uranium for nuclear weapons. The government was the sole party obtaining uranium during the Cold War. Parties involved in the issue contend that the government should pay, as it was the only party that used the mined material.

Kerr-McGee Corporation (CBE)

A large owner of uranium mines in the Southwest United States. This corporation employed many miners, including a considerable number of Navajo. It did little to protect and/or compensate the miners from radiation exposure during the height of demand for uranium.

Office of Navajo Uranium Miners

A grassroots organization headed up to assess the status of the health of Navajo miners. This organization has worked to make itself a legitimate power and draw attention to the suffering of the Navajo.

Harry Tome

A Native American and a uranium miner. Tome is considered to be "instrumental in bringing congressional attention to the plight of the Navajo uranium miners" (Eichstaedt, 1994).

Stewart Udall

A former Secretary of the Interior, Udall was a strong advocate of compensation for dead and dying Navajo uranium miners. Udall fought battles in court and in Congress, and his work was instrumental in getting the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act of 1990 passed.

Union Carbide

Another large owner of uranium mines. It employed Navajo miners during the Cold War.

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Ethnic Group

Percentage of Total US Population



African American


Native American, Eskimo, or Aleut


Asian or Pacific Islander






Source: National Indian Policy Center, 1993

The education demographics:
Total population in US with high school diploma or higher

Navajo Indian in US with high school diploma or higher

Source: National Indian Policy Center, 1993

Lack of Social Status
The social status of the Navajo prevents them from escaping the traps they are ensnared in. Jobs are scarce at best. Unemployment in the Navajo reservation is often over five times the national average, reaching 32% in the 1970s (Eichstaedt, 1994). The Navajo, as a people are also very uneducated. Their educational attainment (percent of persons 25 years old and over with a high school diploma) in 1990 was just 41% (National Indian Policy Center, 1993). The rest of the nation has a graduate rate better than 75% (National Indian Policy Center, 1993). The combination of a lack of education and a lack of jobs forces the Navajo to remain dependent on whatever help they can get. The conditions of exposure to radiation are made worse by lack of money. The Navajo, who were only making $1.15 an hour in the late 1950s were forced to build their houses out of rocks that were on hand (Watson, 1996). The rocks the Navajos used were contaminated with uranium mine waste (Watson, 1996). Even many years later, when the threat from these rocks was recognized there were few funds with which to move families and build new houses of uncontaminated materials (Watson, 1996). Back to Table of Contents


Key Strategies Used

So how did the Navajos fight for what they deserved? How did they overcome the barriers imposed on them by language and cultural differences?

1. Media

One of the first Navajos to see a problem was a miner named Harry Tome. The problem was apparent to Tome as he traveled among the towns in the Navajo reservation. His attempts to get the Navajo Council to act failed due to lack of funds. In 1973, Tome realized that the quickest way to reach congressional representatives in New Mexico and Arizona, to get aid from the federal government, was the news media (Eichstaedt, 1994). On August 17, a story by Urith Lucas appeared across the top of the front page of the Albuquerque Tribune under the headline "Navajos Who Mined Uranium Dying from Lung Cancer" (Eichstaedt, 1994). Senators from New Mexico were contacted as part of the story and the result was an initiation of legislation to compensate uranium mine workers.

Over the next 20 years the media continued to be a tool for the Navajos. Media would play a big role in the Church Rock disaster, though the plight of Native Americans was of secondary news importance, to the possible threat of contaminated drinking water in Lake Mead (which served the city of Las Vegas) (Wasserman and Solomon, 1982). Later Congressional hearings on Church Rock, and the whole process for the enactment of RECA would involve the media to

2. Grassroots Organizations

The Office of Navajo Uranium Miners (ONUM) has worked hard since its establishment, using its legitimate powers to affect change. ONUM is a product of group meetings producing a desire to form a group working for change. It put pressure on government to act in a responsible manner for failing to warn Navajos about the dangers in the mines. It demanded compensation for damages. Currently, the staff at ONUM is working on an amendment to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) that would make it easier for miners to qualify for financial compensation.

In 1990, ONUM was small, and was working to establish a registry of those that worked in the mines (Richardson, 1996). ONUM had meetings in various communities and were publicized by the local media. Information was slow in getting out, and by November of 1990, it was estimated that 90% of all mine workers were still not registered (Richardson, 1996).

Other grassroots organizations have helped in establishing groups of power. The Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum and the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee now hold an annual forum to disseminate information about the problems and potential solutions.

3. Legislation

Getting legislation through the Congress that would grant Navajos the compensation they deserved seemed like an excellent strategy. It would prove to be one of the most difficult things to do. Senate bill 1029 introduced in October of 1973 (matching bill HR 11567 was introduced in the house two months later) was the first in a string of bills that would enter Congress, concerning compensation for Native American miners, that would be shelved or voted down. The Uranium Miners Compensation Act of 1979 would follow suit. Stewart Udall's work for legislation during this time was intense. He urged Congress to consider bills to compensate the miners, but his words went unheeded. In April of 1982, Senate Bill 1483 would be tabled. This bill was the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act of 1981. When it seemed as though the fight to get legislation passed would never succeed, a court ruling came through in 1984. In the July ruling, Judge William Copple ruled that the government was not to blame concerning some programs it carried out, despite potential health risks (Eichstaedt, 1994). He did admit, however, that the case clearly called out for compensation to be provided to the victims (Eichstaedt, 1994). This statement from the courts renewed the struggle to get legislation passed aiding Navajo miners. In 1990, the struggle was a success, with the passing of the RECA of 1990.

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Like most of the fights for rights by minorities, the Navajo struggle for compensation has been long and slow. The tactics that are most effective in their struggle are those that produce the greatest stir to those in power.

The use of media in 1973 was an excellent way to first draw attention to the problem created by the mines. The resultant legislation, from contact with Senators from New Mexico was useless, with both Senate and House bills on the matter stalling in committees. The progress since then, however, has been done in conjunction with the media. Each story in the media forces mainstream America to look a little more closely at the Four-Corners region.

Grassroots organizations have been exceedingly effective in the struggle. The fight for legislation and the education of the miners all came at the hands of groups like ONUM. The garnering of resources, such as media, money and lawyers have been achieved through personal contacts and grassroots work. Their struggles continue today.

Legislative avenues have proven effective when they are finally put into effect. The number of Navajo miners that have been compensated by RECA is higher than those receiving compensation before 1990. The problem with this strategy has been the length and effort required to succeed. There is little doubt that future struggles to pass legislation will be easier though, spurred on by a more informed and more forgiving public, and by a Congress that will aim to look good in the eyes of those continuing the struggle.

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Information Sources

Bureau of Indian Affairs
Harry Tome, Chairperson
Hwy 666N
P.O. Box 3239
Shiprock, NM 87420-3239
# 1-(505)-368-4427

Kerr-McGee Corporation
P.O. Box 25861
Oklahoma, OK 73125
# 1-(405)-270-1313
Fax # 1-(405)-270-3940

Office of Navajo Uranium Workers
P.O. Box 6035
Shiprock, NM 87420
# 1-(505)-368-4448 or 368-4449

Puerco Valley Navajo Clean Water Association
P.O. Box 155
Fort Wingate, NM 87316
# 1-(505)-488-5763 or 862-7202

Stewart Udall (a bibliography)

Union Carbide (Nuclear)
39 Ridgebury Road
Danbury, CT 06817-0001
# 1-(203)-794-6976

Finding Superfund Sites in Navajo Land
Superfund sites are listed for Native Lands on the web: Toxic Alert Native Homelands Superfund Sites http://www.cqs.com/super_nn.htm

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Address of Key Contact Person

For more information regarding Navajo Indians, uranium mining and other related information please feel free to contact :

Bonnie Robinson
c/o The School of Natural Resources and Environment
University of Michigan
or email her at : bonnier@umich.edu

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Benally Sr., Timothy "Navajo Uranium Miners Fight for Compensation." In Motion Magazine. 1995.
http://www.cts.com/browse/publish/miners.html (28 Oct. 1997)

Eichstaedt, Peter H. 1994. If You Poison Us : Uranium and Native Americans. Santa Fe: Red Crane Books

"National Indian Policy Center." American Indian Education Statistics: We the First Americans 1993.
http://www.circ.gwu.edu:70/00/Ce..?Census/Education/General%20Census.htm (28 Oct. 1997)

Richardson, Kerry "Report on the 4th Indigenous Uranium Forum." Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims. 1996.
http://www.sonic.net/~kerry/cove.html (28 Oct. 1997)

"Uranium, the Pentagon and the Navajo People. "
http://www.iacenter.org/depleted/rondon.htm (28 Oct. 1997)

Wasserman, Harvey and Norman Solomon. 1982. Killing Our Own : The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation. New York : Dell Publishing Co.

Watson, Debra "Victims of the Atomic Age." The IWB. 1996.
http://www.socialequality.com/public_html/prioriss/iwbl-27/poison.htm (28 Oct. 1997)

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