We have politicians saying nuclear energy is clean, but you have to look at the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, at those who are first impacted—it is completely unclean because it has the blood of indigenous nations on its hands.” That’s the message from Klee Benally, a campaign organizer for Clean Up the Mines, who came to New York City recently to join in solidarity with the battle underway to close and decommission the Indian Point nuclear plant 25 miles outside the city on the Hudson River. Benally was one of three activists from the western U.S. who spoke at “Fukushima and Indian Point: It All Starts with Uranium,” held in early March and sponsored by the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC), a citizens group based in the Lower Hudson Valley in the forefront of the decades long battle to shut down Indian Point. Benally was joined by Leona Morgan, co-founder of Diné No Nukes, and Jennifer Thurston, director of the Information Network for Responsible Mining (INFORM).
“The reactors in Westchester and those in Japan are powered by uranium and taking it out of the ground is a dirty extractive business that causes misery. Those of us living in the shadow of Indian Point rarely see what the production of fuel that goes into the reactors in our backyard does to people living far away in the Western part of our country,” said IPSEC member Marilyn Ellie.
Clean Up the Mines is a national campaign addressing the deadly impacts from uranium mining on federal and tribal lands where radiation-induced deaths and diseases have devastated communities on Navajo, Pueblo, Hopi, and Lakota lands.
“There are more than 10,000 abandoned uranium mines in Western states and many are in or near indigenous communities suffering from high cancer rates, kidney failure, and birth defects caused by exposure to these toxic sites,” Benally said. Uranium mining on the Navajo reservation began in the 1940s to obtain uranium ore for nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. The Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and mining companies did not inform the Navajo men hired as miners, their families, or communities about the known deadly risks—documented in scientific studies—from exposure to radon and other radioactive poisons generated by mining and milling operations. Kerr McGee, Atlantic Richfield, Union Carbide, and other energy corporations stopped mining in the 1980s when it was no longer profitable, abandoning their mines and doing nothing to address the radioactive contamination they left behind. By then, hundreds of miners were dead from lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.
“Untold thousands have died in the death toll from uranium extraction and little research is done because the government has little interest in the issue,” Thurston said.
Radioactive emissions are from mine sites and continuous radioactive dust is blown by winds from mines and waste piles and contaminates the air, land, and surface and ground water up to 100 miles away. Radioactive contamination on Navajo and Hopi tribal lands was addressed last year in a report released by the Government Accounting Office. The Navajo Nation spans portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico; the Hopi Reservation is surrounded by Navajo territory in northeastern Arizona.
Of the 521 abandoned mines the Environmental Protection Agency has mapped on the Navajo Nation, only 43 are partially assessed to date and are ranked as “highest priority” due to elevated radiation levels measured at mine sites and proximity to nearby homes. The report estimates it would take the EPA “105 years” to complete hazardous waste removal actions at only 21 of the high priority sites based on funding levels for EPA’s Region 9 2008-2013 Superfund removal budget.
“According to our rough estimate, it would take even longer to also address the unknown number of mines without potentially responsible parties that will also need cleanup, but which have not been identified,” the report states. Further, it found most of the radioactive hotspots are “physically accessible” with no warning signs posted about the radiation risk. For example, no warning is posted at a mine site outside Cameron, Arizona where radiation levels were measured at 37 times above normal background leveland, “according to a local government official and a Navajo agency official, they have seen evidence that people visit the mine site; they told us they have found children’s toys at the site and pointed out vehicle tracks,” the report noted.
Church Rock, Worst Spill
Morgan recalled the 1979 radioactive spill in Church Rock, New Mexico and said it remains the most hazardous site on the Navajo reservation with unaddressed health and environmental consequences.
It was the worst radioactive spill in the U.S. and occurred when thousands of tons of uranium tailings and radioactive liquids burst from a dam at the United Nuclear Corporation milling site contaminating an 80-mile path along the Puerco River, the major water supply of sheep, cattle, and horses for area farmers. The spill released more radiation into the environment than the nuclear catastrophe at Three Mile Island (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) four months earlier.
But unlike TMI, which received worldwide news coverage and alerted the public to the inherent dangers of nuclear power, Church Rock was not reported in the mainstream news. “Church Rock is ground zero of uranium mining accidents, but it’s the disaster no one knows about—not even our people. It was suppressed by local media at the time who didn’t report it and by national media who didn’t cover it,” Morgan said. “The regulators kept the information suppressed, but they told white business owners, ‘Don’t buy sheep from people living in this area’.” The cleanup was “no more than a couple of dudes with shovels” and radioactive sludge removed from the river bed covered no more an eight to ten mile stretch.
“People live on the river and they still don’t know what’s affecting them. They herd their sheep and cattle past the tailings pile. Their animals drink water from the river and the farmers can’t sell their sheep. Thirty-five years later, we’re still asking what are the health effects, what are the consequences, and how bad is the contamination,” Morgan said.
“Our people have been living and dying with the uranium legacy issues for over several generations but we still don’t have a comprehensive health study of the effects of uranium mining,” Morgan said, noting that demands for an epidemiological study of impacted communities have been dismissed by the federal government for decades.
The GAO report notes it too, stating that “comprehensive health studies have not been conducted to assess the health effects of uranium contamination on Navajo communities or other communities located near active or abandoned uranium mines and processing sites. But Navajo community members who have lived near these sites have reported a variety of serious health effects, including cancers, according to CDC (Centers for Disease Control).”
Two narrowly focused studies are underway: the Navajo Baby Cohort Study is a five-year study to assess the impact of uranium exposures on pregnancies and early infant development through the first year. The DiNEH Project is based on interviews with Navajo residents, water samples from their drinking sources, and blood and urine samples. Results to date from this study show that chronic kidney diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure and autoimmune diseases are highest in communities near uranium mines. Clean Up the Mines is leading a national campaign for the Uranium Exploration and Mining Accountability Act, announced on Earth Day 2014. It would be the first bill to address uranium mining and would require a Congressional mandate to establish a thorough inventory of abandoned mines in the U.S.
It would also require an assessment of current health and environmental risks at mine sites and it would put a moratorium on approving new permits for uranium exploration or mining operations until a plan is adopted for reclamation of abandoned mines.
It would further require the NRC to set standards needed “to achieve exposure risk-reduction levels of 90, 95, and 99 percent” at sites, relevant to their categorization. “There has never been a comprehensive inventory of the mines and this is a key issue for our legislation. The hazards have not been determined. Our legislation is one of the only avenues we have left at this point,” Benally said.
“We’re facing a system of domination through which governments and corporations disproportionately target and devastate indigenous peoples and our lands to maintain this deadly nuclear production process.”