“Yellow dirt” is the translation for “leetso” – the Navajo Indian word for uranium. Starting in the early 1940’s, the federal government contracted with private industry and the Navajo nation, constructing mines on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. The first mineral they were seeking was vanadium which helped to harden steel for warships. But mixed in with vanadium and radium was uranium, an element that was needed to build the atom bomb. After World War II was over, there was still a huge demand for nuclear production because of the Cold War. It turned out that the tribal lands contained huge amounts of uranium and so the saga began. The Navajo government provided the workers and got a small percentage of the profits. The mining companies provided the equipment and operators, and the U.S. government got the uranium.
Early on reports began to surface of how hazardous uranium is. When it is mined and the uranium leached out of the ore, the remaining dirt still contains uranium. As uranium breaks down, it gives off a gas which you can’t see or smell, but is deadly. Miners in Europe as far back as the 1500’s were documented as falling prey to a “mountain sickness” which we know now was lung cancer, caused by uranium gas.
The miners were not protected as they worked, and they sat and ate their lunch while covered in the yellow uranium dust. After the uranium boom was over in the early 1960’s, the mines and their huge waste piles needed to be cleaned up. This was done minimally or not at all. Actual mine sites were filled in, with no thought to the damage done to the groundwater or attention paid to houses that were built with cement mixed with the yellow dirt. The pits left by the mines filled with groundwater and families and sheep used that water, not knowing the dangers. Not only lung cancer but other cancers and crippling birth defects became suspect among the families exposed to the gas and water.
Judy Pasternak’s book documents different people’s struggles to broadcast the devastation and find someone accountable, at the local, state and federal level. She herself, as a journalist, helped bring the story to the public in a Los Angeles Times series in 2006. A key figure in finally bringing the Navajo government, the federal government, and the mining companies to the table was Henry Waxman, a Democratic congressman, in 2008.
The story continues today, with companies wanting to mine for uranium again on reservation land, with a process that they call safer and not as invasive as earlier methods. The litigation and clean up efforts continue also, with parent companies such as El Paso Natural Gas Corporation wrangling with the Department of Energy about who is responsible for this terrible legacy.