Native Americans denounce toxic legacy

by Danielle Knight


Laguna, New Mexico, Jun 14 -- Native Americans in the United States and Canada have inherited a grim legacy of increased rates of cancer and a ruined environment because of uranium mining on tribal homelands.

Indigenous communities met on the Laguna Indian Rservation here last week for the 10th annual conference of the Indigenous Environment Network against the backdrop of increased mining activities for uranium used for nuclear reactors - and weapons.

While one of the poorest areas in the county, the region surrounding the reservation in the western part of the state of New Mexico is one of the richest in uranium ore deposits.

One of the largest open-pit uranium mines in the world, known as Jackpile operated near a small Laguna town between 1953 and 1982. Originally owned by a small company known as Anaconda, Jackpile is now owned by Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO).

"They said the mine would make us rich but I'm still poor and almost everyone around me is dying of cancer and strange diseases," said Dorothy Purley, a woman dying of lymphoma cancer, who worked for Anaconda Jackpile for 10 years.

In the small town of Paguate, where Purley lives, an estimated 50 people who were miners died from cancer-related illnesses. An additional 20 people who lived downwind from the mine also died, she said.

Kathleen Tsosie, secretary of the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, an advocacy group based in the north eastern part of the state, told a similar story.

"There are a lot of Navajo widows who live alone," she said.

An estimated 350-400 members of the Navajo nations who were underground miners have died from diseases related to exposure to the radioactive uranium, according to Chris Shuey, an environmental health researcher with the Southwest Research and Information Center.

But not all Native Americans at the conference condemned the uranium mining.

"I would like to keep the uranium issue on the positive side," said Harry Early, governor of the Laguna Pueblo. "The Jackpile mine provided employment for 800 people during its 30 years of existence and we don't know if the cancer has really been caused by uranium."

John Redhouse of the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum disagreed. "The social costs and health impacts outweigh any jobs and money the goes to Laguna," he said. "Whatever apparent benefits accrue do not necessarily go to the communities but to the multinational energy companies."

Jackpile is now undergoing a $48 million reclamation programme - paid for by ARCO and conducted by the Laguna tribe - aimed at restoring the landscape to resemble the way it appeared before the exploitation began.

Many at the conference said the current reclamation effort was only partially completed and a lot of the uranium from the mine waste already had leached into the soil and water.

"Two tributaries near the mine and the Rio San Jose have already tested positive for radiation contamination," according to Manual Pino with the Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment. "It's one of the best kept secrets of the United States."

Purley, who lived less than 1,000 meters from Jackpile said she was not happy with progress of the reclamation project. "Every time the rain falls there is still this strange smell by the mine."

Many other abandoned mines also continued to leach contaminants slowly into surrounding areas, Pino added. "In the state of Arizona alone more than 1,300 uranium mines have not been reclaimed," he said.

Cindy Gilday of the Dene tribe from the harsh Northwest Territories of Canada said that uranium mining on their land in the 1940s devastated her hometown of Deline, located near Great Bear Lake - one of the largest on the continent.

During World War II, the Canadian government hired young Dene men to carry uranium in sacks from the mines onto barges. The men had no knowledge of the toxic qualities of their loads.

"Now Deline is a village of widows with most of the men having died in the 1970s and 1980s from cancer," said Gilday. "It was the first time people at Great Bear Lake started to die of lung, bone, stomach, brain and skin cancer."

The early deaths of men in the community had been especially devastating to Dene culture. "This is so important because the elder men are the traditional spiritual and moral advisors in the community," she said.

"What strikes me is that the stories from New Mexico, Arizona and Canada are so similar...we are all dying of the same diseases."

In the United States, Congress attempted to amend past wrongs by passing the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act which would pay underground mine workers who suffered negative health impacts. But many participants at the conference said the Act did not go far enough in compensating other types of mine workers or family members.

"Anybody who has suffered through exposure to radioactive uranium should be compensated," said Pino.

Lawmakers from south-western states have proposed bills to amend the act and include people who worked above ground in the mines and also those who worked in the uranium processing mills.

But new uranium projects using new technology continued to threaten native communities in the southwestern United States, said Tsosie. In her town of Crownpoint, New Mexico, Hydro Resources Inc. planned to leach uranium from the groundwater in three places in the Northwestern part of the state.

The underground leach mining process is different from traditional open-pit mines since it occurs in the groundwater itself when chemicals are injected into the aquifer to dissolve the ore and is then pumped out.

"How can this not possibly threaten our water supply," said Tsosie. "And many of our sacred sites are near these wells."

Tsosie and others have brought their case to Washington, where in hearings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they have tried to revoke the company's permit to mine in the area and a ruling was expected next month.

Indigenous groups in other regions of the world, also are fighting proposed mines on their lands. Australian aboriginal leaders are leading a national campaign against one of the world's largest uranium deposits - known as Jabiluka.

Located on land that is traditionally owned by the Mirrar indigenous people in the Northern Territory region of the country, the mine is surrounded by the country's largest national parklands.

Famous for its biological diversity, Kakadu Park is has been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. "The environment is part of us, so any damage to the land is damage to us," said Jacqui Katona, an Australian aboriginal woman, on of the leaders of the fight against the mine. (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).