Last Updated on 03/23/2023 by Sophia
The Environmental Impact of Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation
APA Style: 6 pages, 15 References The paper must include 5 main topics: 1. What is Uranium Mining? 2. The History of Navajo Nation Uranium Mining- mention cancer among Navajo people due to exposure. 3. Navajo Nation Environmental Impact Statistics 4. Clean-up of Abandoned Mines 5. The Future of Navajo Nation and Uranium Mining
The Navajo nation refers to the territory of land extending into Utah, Arizona and New Mexico,
and it covers approximately twenty-seven thousand square miles. (Denetdale, 2006) Notably, the
Navajo nation comprises three hundred thousand members of the Native American extraction.
The Navajo are the second largest tribe that has gained federal recognition, with the first one
being the Cherokee nation.
Uranium is a naturally occurring metal found on earth, with studies showing that there
are small amounts of uranium in almost every soil, water, and rock surface. Notably, uranium is
used for constructing military and civil equipment such as weapons, passenger planes and
helicopters. Therefore, uranium mining encompasses identifying the seam of rock where the
uranium is contained and cracking it to expose the uranium ore. The uranium is either mined
using the open pit or subsurface underground mining (Farjana et al., 2018). The ore is essentially
extracted through mechanical means such as pick and shovels, blasting and drilling then it gets
moved to the surface. After extraction, the ore gets ground into a powder that is ready for
industrial use. Unfortunately, due to the low concentration of uranium in the parent rock, large
rock quantities have to get moved to extract insignificant amounts of natural uranium.
Consequently, there is immense destruction of the natural environment and piling of rocks that
have gotten dug during the uranium ore extraction process.
History of the Navajo Nation Uranium Mining
Decades of uranium mining have left the Navajo nation exposed to the dangers of uranium
contamination that threatens the Navajo people's well-being. Notably, between 1948 and 1986,
the Navajo Nation entered into lease agreements with mine operators to extract uranium.
Consequently, extensive mining was carried out in the land, leaving an estimated five hundred
abandoned uranium mines. The mining has left the Navajo nation with four inactive uranium
milling sites, contaminated groundwater, a former dumpsite, and structures containing high
radiation levels. Therefore, all these factors have raised environmental health concerns amongst
various environmental groups.
Many Native Americans saw the uranium business as a lucrative venture that could provide a
decent livelihood. Notably, after depending on foreign uranium, the American Energy
Commission (AEC) declared that it could purchase all uranium ore mined in the United States.
Therefore, once the Navajo nation's extraction set foot, thousands of Navajo's set to work in the
industry. While traveling to look for jobs in the mining industry, the Navajos usually moved with
their families for logistical purposes (Brugge, 2007). In the short run, the extraction business
provided the Navajo families with wages that enabled them to live close to a decent life and
sustain their families. Oblivious of the impending dangers, the Navajos were thankful that they
had found employment to keep them afloat.
However, the truth is the workers were paid bare minimum wages or sometimes even less. For
instance, the miners were paid exploitative hourly rates of $0.81 to $1.00 for jobs such as
building wooden supports in the mines, digging and blasting rocks and transportation. The
Navajo workers carried out the most hectic tasks, yet they got very little pay, earning the mining
companies hefty profits. Notably, before uranium mining ever happened in the United States,
Germany and Czechoslovakia were known producers of uranium of metal and uranium dye. The
existing knowledge, borrowing from the European experience, showed a definite pattern between
the mining activities and lung cancer. Initial studies showed that seventy-five percent of the
miners died from lung cancer though later research lowered the number by half. However, the
bottom line is that significant lung cancer deaths among miners were linked to uranium mining
activities. Consequently, by 1932, Germany and Czechoslovakia's governments recognized lung
cancer as an occupational disease and agreed to compensate people living with lung cancer who
worked in the uranium mines.
Nevertheless, although the United States government was aware of uranium radiation's possible
adverse effects, it did little to protect the Navajo workers. Additionally, Navajos were not well
educated neither did they have a word for radiation as a possible cause of cancer in their
languages. (Voyles & Traci, 2015) Thus, the Navajos were cut entirely out of the knowledge
regarding uranium's effects on the human body due to their geographical location, literacy levels,
and education. Notably, fact-finding missions conducted later among the Navajos reveal that
they were not educated about uranium extraction dangers, nor were they given any protective
gears. Therefore, the Navajos did not know that uranium presented a longtime health hazard.
Today, the Navajos feel that their government betrayed them by knowingly exposing them to
uranium radiation. Specifically, the Navajo nation argues that the government also went against
the express provisions of the Treaty of 1868 entered into by the Navajo Nation and the U.S.
government. The treaty mandated the Bureau of Indian affairs to care for the Navajo economic,
health and educational needs. Therefore, the U.S. government failed the Navajos by not
safeguarding their health when it was put at risk by the uranium extraction activities.
Navajo Nation Environmental Impact Statistics
The study indicates that extensive mining activities have resulted in approximately five hundred
abandoned uranium sites. Additionally, the mining has left the Navajo nation with four inactive
uranium milling sites, contaminated groundwater, a former dumpsite, and structures containing
high radiation levels. Therefore, in 2008 the House Committee on Oversight and Government
Reform requested the Bureau of Indian Affairs in conjunction with the Department of Energy
(DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Indian Health Service (HIS) AND Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) to develop a five-year plan aiming at addressing issues of
environmental concern. Firstly, the task force was supposed to assess structures and water
sources that are likely to be contaminated and consequently clean them to safe levels. Secondly,
where they found that the water sources have contaminated the task was to provide safe drinking
water to the affected persons (Hoover et al., 2017). Thirdly, the task force required assessing all
abandoned mines to identify those that posed environmental and health risks. Further, the task
was to undertake a cleanup exercise on the North East Church Rock mine site, Tuba City
Highway 160 and Tuba City Dump. Lastly, the task force was required to assess the health risks
faced by persons living close to abandoned mine sites and relocate people where they found
significant health risks.
However, despite the efforts to clean the uranium sites, the Navajo nation is still feeling the
uranium extraction effects. Firstly, hundreds of sites were never cleaned; thus, they still pose a
health challenge to the Navajo Nation. Additionally, although the government has gone slow on
uranium mining, private extractors continue to undertake mining activities in the Navajo nation,
putting the community in danger. Notably, of all ground resource extraction activities, uranium
extraction is the most destructive to the environment. The uranium ore affluent cannot be chemically mitigated, making it an eternal danger to the environment and human health. For
instance, in 1979, the Church Rock disaster was real proof of the extent of devastation caused by
uranium (Arnold, 2014). A dam formed due to the extraction activities burst, and the water ran
into Rio Puerco River, contaminating it to levels that it is still unsafe for consumption to date.
Cleanup of Abandoned Mines
As mentioned earlier, cleaning abandoned mines has been a priority of the U.S. government and
all stakeholders. The government aims at cleaning the mines to ensure that they do not pose any
health risks to the individuals living around the mines. Like the Church Rock disaster, if water
collects on the mines then overflows into rivers, the rivers can become unusable. Therefore,
ensuring that the abandoned sites are cleaned to eliminate the risk of contamination is the
ultimate goal. The five-year cleanup plan entered in 2008 identified priorities sites that needed
immediate attention, including North East Church Rock and Tuba City Dump (Ram et al., 2016).
Consequently, the cleanup exercises got conducted extensively with significant success. Today,
all the priority mines are in the assessment stage before they can be certified as safe. The
assessment includes biological and cultural surveys, soil and water sampling and radiation
scanning. Notably, even as late as the year 2020, cleanup exercises are still ongoing in the
Navajo nation with no clear end in sight. In February 2020, the Navajo Nation and the federal
government finalized an agreement that boosted the cleanup activities. The cleanup exercise is
estimated to cost several billions of dollars, and it might take decades to accomplish safety
The Future of Navajo Nation & Uranium Mining
The Navajo Nation is actively involved in the cleanup exercise and demands controlled uranium
extraction activities on their land. In 2017 the U.S. District Court of Arizona entered a six
hundred million dollar settlement agreement between the Navajo Nation and the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for cleanup of ninety-four abandoned sites. The funds
were part of the ongoing cleanup exercise, which the Navajo nation is focused on ensuring that it
comes to a logical conclusion since it is the most affected. Notably, the Navajo Nation has been
engaged in extensive litigation because it wants to avoid a scenario where Congress and federal
agencies fail to provide the necessary protection. (Panikkar, 2007) Therefore, judging from the
historical facts, the Navajo nation is given complete control over the mining activities in their
In essence, by gaining control, the Navajos shall monitor how mining is conducted to preempt a
repeat of past mistakes. If controlled mining is not possible, then the Navajo nation government
should get the authority to halt uranium mining activities in their land entirely. Honestly, there is
no profit in continuing an activity that harms thousands of people, no matter how profitable the
venture. In conclusion, as cleanup exercises continue even going into the next decade starting
next year, there is a need to ensure that uranium extraction companies get regulated not only in
the Navajo nation but across the United States.
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Denetdale, J. N. (2006). Chairmen, presidents, and princesses: The Navajo Nation, gender, and
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