The feds, uranium, and the deadly toll on Navajos

By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2010

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In 1971, the State of Colorado petitioned the United States government to help clean up the community of Grand Junction, where waste material from a uranium mine had contaminated homes and businesses, leaving residents at grave risk of illness and death from the leftover radioactive material. The government spent $250 million tearing down houses and businesses, moving people to safer ground, keeping them safe. The people of Grand Junction were white.

Meanwhile, the Navajo people of Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border received no help, no cleanup, and not even an admission of the harm caused to them until many decades later. In a compelling new book, Judy Pasternak, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, chronicles their story, one that resounds with echoes of historical colonial abuses (there are more than a few parallels to the Belgian Congo). The story feels dismally current in a year that saw both a devastating coal mining disaster and a massive offshore oil spill. Although often described as accidental tragedies, it’s easy to see them instead as predictable outcomes when corporate greed and lax safety regulations come together in a poor neighborhood.

As poor neighborhoods go, the Navajo community Pasternak explores in “Yellow Dirt’’ (the title refers to the local name for the uranium-rich ore) is among the most destitute. Many residents still lack access to electricity and clean water, and the unemployment rate is stuck around 50 percent. Nearly 150 years after their ancestors signed a treaty with the United States government, the Navajo have seen their traditional lifestyle destroyed without anything better to take its place. All the more understandable, then, that when they saw white prospectors looking for the peculiar yellow rocks they knew so well, some Navajos led them to hidden caches of it, hoping to enrich themselves in the process. They didn’t know it would lead to, as Pasternak writes, “a slow environmental catastrophe . . . an American tragedy that has yet to play out to its end.’’

Beginning in the 1940s with the Manhattan Project and continuing through the peak of the Cold War, the government purchased 270,000 tons of uranium oxide, also known as yellowcake, refined from the ore extracted from these mines. Most of it was never used to make atomic bombs, yet it caused destruction anyway, both to the Navajo men who worked in the mines and mills and to their families at home, where women used water from contaminated wells and ponds and children played in piles of discarded radioactive waste. And although the health risks were being studied and written about as early as the 1950s, it wasn’t until 2007 that the US government took action to clean up the mess. By that time, of course, hundreds of Navajo people had died of radiation-related cancers and other illnesses, while others bore children suffering from birth defects that turned their hands and feet into useless claws.

Readers may find it difficult following the complex and sometimes arcane activities of an alphabet soup of corporations and federal and Navajo agencies. I wanted more narrative, richer context, and lengthier digressions. I wish Pasternak had spent more time fleshing out characters — even in the briefest sketches, some are so compelling that they merit more breathing room than the author provides. “Yellow Dirt’’ starts slowly as Pasternak focuses on the patriarch of the family at the book’s center, an elderly Navajo named Adakai, in whose descriptions she comes closest to the corny mystical Indian treatment she so ably avoids in the rest of the book.

Still, this is a book that rewards patience. It builds to a series of surprising conclusions — in particular those focusing on the youngest Navajos who are using modern technology to learn and tell old stories. In the end, lingering sadness and anger mingle with hope.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@

YELLOW DIRT: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed By Judy Pasternak

Free Press, 336 pp., $26