An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed by Judy Pasternak, Free Press, 317 pages
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 Uranium mining was conducted under outdated and primitive conditions that maximized exposure to workers and their families.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