Environmental Impacts on the Navajo Nation from Uranium Mining

This page was written by Erin Klauk as part of the DLESE Community Services Project: Integrating Research in Education.

Former miner Joe Ray Harvey at an abandoned uranium mine near Cove, Arizona. Details

Despite efforts made in cleaning up uranium sites, significant problems stemming from the legacy of uranium development still exist today on the Navajo Nation. Hundreds of abandoned mines have not been cleaned up and present environmental and health risks in many Navajo communities. In addition to this, Navajo communities now have to face proposed new uranium solution mining that threatens the only source of drinking water for 10,000 to 15,000 people living in the Eastern Navajo Agency in northwestern New Mexico. The Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) aims to provide the public with information on resource exploitation on the people and their cultures, lands, water, and air of the Southwest (SRIC).

In terms of both short and long term environmental impact, uranium mining is by far the most environmentally problematic of any mining activity because radioactivity of the ore presents an intangible that cannot be chemically mitigated. Even after the mining activities ceased on the Navajo Nation, the legacy of environmental harm continued from events such as what happened in 1979 at Church Rock. The Church Rock disaster is the largest accidental release of radioactive material in U.S. history. A tailing dam burst, sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid pouring toward Arizona into the Rio Puerco River. The Navajo still cannot use this water ([Ali, 2003] ).

A modern strip mine: Dragline in pit at Peabody-Western's Black Mesa mine located in the Navajo-Hopi joint-use area in Arizona. Details

To further investigate environmental impacts from uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, follow the links below.

Investigate the Environmental Impacts from Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation

Online resources containing information about the environmental impacts on the Navajo Nation:

  • Uranium Milling and the Church Rock Disaster (more info) This website describes the 'Churchrock Disaster' that occurred on July 16, 1979 at Churchrock, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation. Information includes the effects of the dam at Church Rock bursting and sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid pouring downstream toward Arizona. This article is part of a complete on-line reproduction of the text of the 1982 book, "Killing Our Own, The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation."
  • Abandoned Uranium Mines on the Navajo Nation This EPA website discusses the assessment of potential health risks from abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. Topics include; description and history of mines and reclamation initiatives, threats and contaminants, cleanup approach, environmental progress, potentially responsible parties, links to documents and reports, and community involvement. Also included are addresses for public information repositories, library sources and contacts.
  • Uranium Mining in Europe: Environmental Impacts (more info) This resource, from WISE News Communique, is part of a larger collection that describes uranium mining in Europe. This section of the collection concentrates on the environmental impacts from uranium mining and milling including waste material, heap leaching piles, in-situ leaching, and uranium mill tailings.
  • Southwest Research and Information Center - Uranium Assessment Program The mission of Southwest Research and Information Center is to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations. The Uranium Impact Assessment Program contains information about current issues dealing with the Navajo Nation. Useful fact sheets are found on this site.
  • Uranium Impact Assessment Program Presentation Outline This site is compiled by the Southwest Research and Information Center. The slide show is about uranium development in Navajo communities. Topics covered include basic radiation information, health issues, a review of uranium health studies, a case study on outdoor radon in Church Rock, implications for Navajo communities, and educational resources.
  • The Navajo Uranium Mining Experience, 2003-1952 (more info) This bibliography, compiled by the Southwest Research and Information Center, contains resources related to Navajo uranium issues and communities affected by uranium mining impacts since the mid-1970s. Entries were selected for their relevancy to Navajo community concerns, Navajo Nation policies, and health and environmental effects of uranium development on Navajo lands. Topics for resources include articles, books, policy statements, reports, presentations, testimony, and published medical, scientific and sociological literature.
  • An Aerial Radiological Survey of Abandoned Uranium Mines in the Navajo Nation This report documents the results of aerial radiological surveys of 41 areas in the Navajo Nation. Topics include a description of the study area, background information about radiation in the environment, and discussions of survey operations, data analysis, spatial considerations, and aerial survey results. Detailed figures and tables are provided to illustrate the data.

Suggestions for Future Reading about the Environmental Impacts from Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation

Resources containing information about the environmental impacts on the Navajo Nation:

  • If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans. Eichsteadt, 1994 This book recounts the story of how uranium mining began on the Navajo lands in the American West. It discusses how mining was conducted and how its deadly legacy still lingers in the lives of the men, women, and children whose homelands have been destroyed. Useful tools in this book include a map of the uranium ore mining areas, interviews with miners and their relatives, and an appendix with accounts of federal involvement. (citation and description)
  • US: Uranium Mining on Navajo Lands. Shaiman, 1998 This journal article from Race and Class discusses how the US government is planning to establish uranium mining and processing plants on Navajo land in New Mexico, despite a moratorium and opposition by native groups. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission argues that any negative impacts can be rescued, but the process for uranium extraction involves chemical contamination of groundwater, making desert living more precarious. (citation and description)
  • Mining, the Environment, and Indigenous Development Conflicts. [Ali, 2003] This book describes resource conflicts and environmental impact assessment by asking why indigenous communities support environmental causes in some cases of mining development but not in others. The author examines environmental conflicts between mining companies and indigenous communities and offers a comparative study of the factors leading to those conflicts. (citation and description)
  • Impact of Pollution Caused by Uranium Production on Soil Microfauna. [Gongalsky, 2003] This article in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment discusses the contamination results from 30 years of mining and milling activities of the Priargunsky Mining-Chemical Production Company in Russia by analyzing the element composition of four beetle species. The concentrations of uranium and arsenic in beetles collected at the contaminated sites were found to be much higher than in beetles collected at the control site. There were fewer soil macroinvertebrates, and diversity was reduced at the contaminated sites The article provides strong evidence that the contamination caused by uranium production has severe negative biological effects on important groups of the soil food web. (citation and description)
  • Assessing Potential Risks from Exposure to Natural Uranium in Well Water. [Hakonson-Hayesa et al, 2002] This article in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity discusses the drinking water contamination levels in the Nambe region of northern New Mexico based on the EPA’s recommended drinking water standards. Uranium uptake was estimated in tomato, squash, lettuce and radishes irrigated with Nambe well water. Plant uptake and human dose and toxicity associated with ingestion of water and produce was evaluated, as well as inhalation of irrigated soil related to gardening activities. Uranium concentration in plants increased linearly with increasing uranium concentration in irrigation water, particularly in lettuce and radishes. (citation and description)
  • Psychological Effects of Technological Human-Caused Environmental Disasters: Examination of the Navajo and Uranium. [Markstrom and Charley, 2003] This article in the American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research: Journal of the National Center recounts the history of uranium mining on Navajo land along with the inter-related environmental and psychological impacts on the Navajo people from uranium mining. The article attempts to help the reader understand this situation in light of Navajo culture and beliefs. (citation and description)
  • The Church Rock Uranium Mill Tailings Spill : A Health and Environmental Assessment: Summary Report. [Millard et al, 1983] This New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division (EID) summary report reports the results of environmental monitoring conducted by the EID subsequent to the mill tailings spill in 1979 at Church Rock, NM. (citation and description)
  • Uranium Development in the San Juan Basin Region: Final Report. [US Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1980] This US Department of the Interior document is the final copy of the San Juan Basin Regional Uranium Study. It is the culmination of a 3.5 year effort to analyze environmental impacts due to uranium development in northwest New Mexico from the present to the year 2000. The document is meant to serve the informational needs of impact analysts, planners and the general public. (citation and description)

For ideas on how to use these webpages in a classroom, a Study Guide is provided.