Yel­low Dirt:

An Amer­i­can Story of a Poi­soned Land and a Peo­ple Be­trayed by Judy Paster­nak, Free Press, 317 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

Judy Paster­nak, a 24-year vet­eran re­porter for the Los An­ge­les Times, writes a mov­ing and mostly even-handed tale that fol­lows the his­tory of ura­nium min­ing on the Navajo Nation. The heart of the tale be­gins in the 1940s, when the U.S. govern­ment sought a do­mes­tic source of a sud­denly much-needed min­eral for its new se­cret-weapons pro­gram. Paster­nak in­tro­duces us to key char­ac­ters in­clud­ing Navajo fam­i­lies, min­ing-com­pany ex­ec­u­tives, U.S. and tribal govern­ment of­fi­cials, non-In­dian traders, In­dian prospec­tors, and sci­en­tists in­volved along the way and fol­lows them as the tale un­folds like a Greek tragedy in which com­mon hu­man fail­ings lead to ter­ri­ble con­se­quences. It is a com­pli­cated tragedy in which greed, naiveté, World War II and Cold War pol­i­tics, sci­en­tific un­cer­tainty, ig­no­rance — both the sim­ple and the will­ful kinds — and a uni­ver­sal shirk­ing of re­spon­si­bil­ity played roles.

A byzan­tine govern­ment bu­reau­cracy that in­volves at least four U.S. fed­eral agen­cies, the Navajo tribal govern­ment, and four state gov­ern­ments — as well as chronic un­der­fund­ing and some will­ful neg­li­gence — con­trib­uted in con­sid­er­able mea­sure to the fail­ure to over­see mul­ti­ple pri­vate com­pa­nies that dis­played lit­tle con­cern for any­thing but profit. Paster­nak ef­fec­tively cap­tures this com­plex­ity, and though she clearly sides with the Navajo who are the hu­man vic­tims of the en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter they un­wit­tingly helped cre­ate on their lands, she is mostly care­ful to re­tain an in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter’s ob­jec­tiv­ity in re­port­ing the facts about the be­tray­als and fail­ings on all sides.

Paster­nak’s ou­trage for what hap­pened on the Navajo Nation is pal­pa­ble. Ura­nium min­ing was con­ducted un­der out­dated and prim­i­tive con­di­tions that max­i­mized ex­po­sure to work­ers and their fam­i­lies. Toxic and ra­dioac­tive tail­ings were left in situ, pits and mines sim­ply aban­doned with­out any ef­forts at con­tain­ment or iso­la­tion, with pre­dictable con­se­quences: the poi­son­ing of peo­ple, live­stock, wa­ter, and range. Rock and rub­ble piles pro­vided tempt­ing build­ing ma­te­ri­als to a poor pop­u­la­tion so that the poi­son and ra­di­a­tion was built into their homes. Decades later, peo­ple are con­tin­u­ing to grow sick and die as a re­sult. Paster­nak shows us the horror of what hap­pened to the Navajo with clear prose and poignant ex­am­ples.

I find some of Paster­nak’s ref­er­ences thin, but my ma­jor crit­i­cism lies not with the story that she tells but the story she ig­nores. As both a Westerner and a for­mer en­vi­ron­men­tal tox­i­col­o­gist who worked for a decade on just the sort of aban­doned haz­ardous wastes sites (known in short­hand terms as Su­per­fund) that lit­ter the Navajo Nation as a re­sult of ura­nium min­ing and milling, I found Paster­nak frus­trat­ingly naive or cu­ri­ously se­lec­tive in her ou­trage. The Navajo case is sim­ply the most egre­gious ex­am­ple of the Western min­ing legacy — a legacy of poi­soned aquifers and wa­ter­sheds, sick­ened peo­ple and live­stock, dev­as­tated ranges and ecosys­tems re­sult­ing from decades of in­ad­e­quate or nonex­is­tent con­trols and a con­tin­ued lack of ef­fec­tive re­me­di­a­tion or iso­la­tion of mill tail­ings, pits, and mines. The U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency states, “Ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, there are over half a mil­lion aban­doned mines na­tion­wide, most of which are for­mer hard rock mines lo­cated in the western States. Acid mine drainage from aban­doned mines is re­spon­si­ble for dam­ag­ing wa­ter­sheds and de­grad­ing wa­ter qual­ity through­out the United States.” Acid mine drainage con­tains heavy met­als brought to the sur­face like lead, cad­mium, and mer­cury — highly toxic sub­stances at low doses that never break down in the en­vi­ron­ment and that cause a va­ri­ety of ill­nesses, in­clud­ing can­cer. What’s more, the min­ing is by no means all in the past — even if, as Paster­nak writes, the Navajo have passed a law against ura­nium min­ing on the Navajo Nation. Last year, the 10th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals ruled that Church Rock, New Mex­ico, is not “In­dian coun­try,” paving the way for Ura­nium Re­sources Inc. to con­duct in situ ura­nium leach min­ing there. Ura­nium prices are up, and that means New Mex­ico, the lo­ca­tion of one of the largest de­posits of ura­nium in the U.S., is once more in the sights of ura­nium min­ing com­pa­nies.

Paster­nak il­lus­trates the dif­fi­culty of iden­ti­fy­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­po­sure as the cul­prit for hu­man ill­ness — even when it seems over­whelm­ingly ob­vi­ous. I ap­plaud her telling of the Nava­jos’ story. Her book is a good primer for the larger prob­lem of the ex­ist­ing and po­ten­tial con­se­quences of ex­trac­tive in­dus­tries, but the Navajo are not alone in pay­ing with their lives and health for the ex­trac­tion of the min­eral wealth of the West — and it’s not over.

— Su­san Mead­ows

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