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Native American uranium miners and the Trump budget via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Robert Alvarez

[…]

Native American uranium miners were essential to the United States’ efforts to create a nuclear arsenal. From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Indian people dug up approximately four million tons of uranium ore—nearly a quarter of the total national underground production in the United States used in nuclear weapons. As they did so, they were sent into harm’s way without sufficient warning, becoming the workers most severely exposed to ionizing radiation in the US nuclear weapons complex. After more than a century, the legacy of US uranium mining lingers. More than three billion metric tons of mining and milling wastes were generated in the United States. Today, Navajos still live near about one third (approximately 1,200 out of 4,000) of all abandoned uranium mines in the United States.

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America’s Indian miners were never warned of the hazards of radioactivity in the mines, where they inhaled, ingested, and drank uranium dust. The water in the mines was especially dangerous; it contained high quantities of radon—a radioactive gas emanating from the ore. Radon decays into heavy, more radiotoxic isotopes, called “radon daughters,” which include isotopes of polonium, bismuth, and lead. The alpha particle emissions of radon daughters are considered to be about 20 times more carcinogenic than x-rays. If they lodge in the respiratory system, especially the deep lung, radon daughters emit energetic ionizing radiation that can damage cells of sensitive internal tissues.

And of course, the miners brought the uranium dust home, along with their contaminated clothing.

[….]

Lung disease associated with radon exposure was “totally avoidable,” former chief health scientist for the AEC Merrill Eisenbud said in 1979. “The Atomic Energy Commission … is uniquely responsible for the death of many men who developed lung cancer as a result of the failure of the mine operators, who must also bear the blame, because they too had the information, and the Government should not have had to club them into ventilating their mines.”

How the Trump budget threatens uranium mine cleanup. Even though there is a significant body of evidence, spanning decades, of deliberate negligence by the US government, federal courts have denied claims by the uranium miners and those exposed to radioactive fallout from Nevada nuclear weapons testing on the grounds of sovereign immunity. “[A]ll the actions of various governmental agencies complained of by plaintiffs were the result of conscious policy decisions made at high government levels based on considerations of political and national security feasibility factors,” is how one federal judge put it.

After several decades of considerable effort by miners and their families, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in October 1990. The Act offered a formal apology for sending people into harm’s way and provided a one-time compensation to each victim in the amount of $150,000. But the financial compensation came too late for many who had died. And it would never be enough to compensate for illness and death that could have been prevented.

An estimated 30,000 Navajos are now living near abandoned uranium mines. The EPA has found that, because of their traditional lifestyle, Indian people are the group most vulnerable to environmental contaminants. The Navajo nation and the US Justice Department have reached settlement agreements in two uranium-related lawsuits since 2014; the settlements total about $1.5 billion, which would go toward remediating 144 of the most troublesome mines. But there’s a rub: The degree and extent of mine cleanup depends on tribal assistance funds and oversight by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The budget plan that the Trump administration recently released makes deep cuts in the EPA workforce, in EPA programs to ensure compliance with the cleanup agreements, and in funding for the Navajo nation to carry out its responsibilities to oversee the process. This makes it clear that addressing the sacrifices made by the Indian people for the nuclear arms race are being put at the bottom of the list of Trump administration priorities.

 

 

 

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