Native People, Environmental Harm and Uranium Mining in the Four Corners Region of the US

By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


The Four Corners region of the US (southwest Colorado, northwest New Mexico, northeast Arizona, and southeast Utah) was the site of the largest uranium mines exploration in US history, and had/has serve consequences for Native American peoples living in that region. A number of studies have examined the deleterious impacts of uranium mining on Native peoples in this area.

Health issues for Native peoples began to noticed in the 1960s when cases of lung cancer among Navajo uranium miners surfaced (Brugge and Goble 2002, 1415; Brugge, Benally, and Yazzie-Lewis 2006; see also, Gilliland et al., 2000; Gottlieb and Husen 1982 ; Dawson 1992; Roscoe et al. 1995). In interviews with Native American uranium mine workers Dawson (1992) and found that they were uninformed about the dangers of radiation exposure (see also, Dawson and Madsen, 1995). Indeed, as others have noted, many of the workers spoke Native languages that did not contain a word for an idea such as radiation. Revealing the extent of health problems, Roscoe et al (1995) conducted a post-mortality examination of 757 Navajo uranium miners from the Colorado Plateau, which revealed elevated rates of lung cancer, tuberculosis, pneumoconiosis, and other respiratory diseases, and that 25 years after their last occupational exposure, Navajo miners faced excessive mortality risks from these diseases (Roscoe et al. 1995).

The Anaconda uranium mine in Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, which opened in the early 1950s, became the world’s largest uranium strip mine, over five miles long (LaDuke 1979), and posed significant health risks to local Native populations. In addition to health effects, Navajo miners were prohibited from joining or forming unions by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, and were paid two-thirds the wage given to whites (LaDuke 1979). Thus, not only were Native American miners exposed to unsafe working conditions, their labor was super-exploited.

Local communities faced health threats from mining waste. Mining wastes associated with uranium mining are extensive and generate large quantities of contaminated tailings. It takes one ton of uranium ore to produce just 2.24 ounces of “yellow cake” uranium — that is concentrated uranium in powder form (LaDuke 1979). As a result, the uranium mining process leaves behind large quantities of contaminated waste piles that can expose local population to radiation. For example, in Shiprock, New Mexico, the Kerr McGee mine left behind 72 acres of mine tailings which retain 85 percent of their radioactivity and sat only 60 feet from the San Juan River, posing other environmental and health consequences in Navajo territories (LaDuke 1979).

Prior research has established that uranium is not only dangerous because of its radioactivity, but also because it acts as an endocrine disruptor (Raymond-Whish et al., 2007). This is an important observation because in the Four Corner region there are an estimated 1,300 abandoned uranium mines. Unremediated uranium mine waste sites pollute the air, water, soil and food chain, and the effects can be extensive (Brugge and Goble 2002).
The consequences of such large quantities uranium waste and abandoned uranium mine sites has been pointed out by Oak Ridge National Laboratories which estimated that 10,000 gallons of uranium-laced water leaks into the Colorado River daily. Of 226 water sources tested in the region, 90 were contaminated with uranium in excess of EPA standards, some with concentration 38 times higher than standards allow. At least one one-half of Navajo obtain drinking water from unregulated, non-municipal water systems (Raymond-Whish et al. 2007). Prior research on health effects among the Navajo indicated other issues as well, such as an increase in still births, birth defects and other adverse pregnancy outcomes among Navajos born in Shiprock between 1964 through 1981 (Shields et al., 1992). Studies also indicate that Native people suffer psychological effects related to uranium exposure concerns (Markstrom and Charley 2003). For an overview of these issues related to the Navajo see, Arnold, 2014).

Further Reading
While this entry has reviewed some related studies of the impacts of uranium mining and waste on Native American populations in the Four Corners region, academics have tended to neglect this issue and there are significant sources of information on these concerns available in other locations on the internet

The High Cost of Uranium in Navajoland,

Environmental Racism, Tribal Sovereignty and Nuclear Waste,

Nuclear War: Uranium Mining and Nuclear Tests on Indigenous Lands,

After Decades of Uranium Mining, Navajo Nation Struggles With Devastating Legacy of Contamination,

Native Americans: Uranium Mining/ Nuclear Testing/ Nuclear Dumping,

Environmental Justice Case Study: The Yucca Mountain High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository and the Western Shoshone, University of Michigan

America’s “Secret Fukushima”: Uranium Mining is Poisoning the Bread Basket of the World,

Arnold, C. 2014. Once upon a mine: the legacy of uranium on the Navajo Nation. Environmental Health Perspectives 122: A44-A49.

Brugge, Doug, and Rob Goble. 2002. The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People. American Journal of Public Health 92: 1410–19.

Brugge, Doug, Timothy Benally, and Esther Yazzie-Lewis. 2006. The Navajo People and Uranium Mining. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Brugge, Doug, Jamie deLemos, and Cat Bui. 2007. The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities. American Journal of Public Health 97: 1595–600.

Churchill, Ward, and Winona LaDuke. 1992. Native North America: The Political Economy of Radioactive Colonialism. Pp. 241-266 in A. Jaimes (ed) State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization and Resistance. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Dawson, Susan. 1992. Navajo Uranium Workers and the Effects of Occupational Illnesses: A Case Study. Human Organization 51: 389–97.

Dawson, Susan, and Gary Madsen. 1995. American Indian Uranium Mill Workers: A Study of the Perceived Effects of Occupational Exposure. Journal of Health & Social Policy 7: 19–31.

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

Gilliland, Frank, William Hunt, Marla Pardilla, and Charles Key. 2000. Uranium Mining and Lung Cancer among Navajo Men in New Mexico and Arizona, 1969-1993. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine 42: 278–83.

Gottlieb, L.S., and L. A. Husan. 1982. Lung Cancer among Navajo Uranium Miners. Chest 81, 4: 449-452.

La Duke, Winona 1979. Uranium Mines on Native Land: The New Indian Wars. The Harvard Crimson, May 2 [accessed February 7, 2014].

Markstrom, Carol, and Perry Charley. 2003. Psychological Effects of Human Caused Environmental Disasters: Examination of the Navajo and Uranium. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research 11: 19–45.

Raymond-Whish, Stefanie, Loretta Mayer, Tamara O’Neal, Alisyn Martinez, Marilee Sellers, Patricia Christian, Samuel Marion, Carlyle Begay, Catherine Propper, Patricia Hoyer, and Cheryl Dyer. 2007. Drinking Water with Uranium below the U.S. EPA Water Standard Causes Estrogen Receptor–Dependent Responses in Female Mice. Environmental Health Perspectives 115: 1711–16.

Roscoe, Robert, James Deddens, Alberto Salvan, and Teresa Schnorr. 1995. Mortality among Navajo Uranium Miners. American Journal of Public Health 85: 535–40.

Shields, L., W. Wiese, B. Skipper, B. Charley, and L. Banally. 1992. Navajo Birth Outcomes in the Shiprock Uranium Mining Area. Health Physics 63: 542–51.

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