Skip to main content

Navajo uranium miners never warned work could kill them

  • Author:
  • Updated:

COVE, Ariz. (AP) - Inside the stifling cinderblock house of Dorothy Joe, nothing moves but waves of grief.

One by one, the widow and her children begin to sob, as if despair were contagious. The weeping circle begins and ends with her, sitting at the dining room table, staring at weathered hands as if they held answers.

She murmurs in Navajo, describing the white man's prized uranium and how it destroyed her husband.

"They never told us it would kill us," says David, choking on his tears. "I'm sorry," the son says, drawing a deep breath. "I'm sorry."

They received $100,000 from the government for the death of Raymond Joe, who scraped radioactive rock from surrounding mountains to fuel the Cold War. The conflict never turned hot, but it killed Ray Joe just the same.

He died six years ago but his family is inconsolable, as if he were just now drawing his last breath from these stagnant rooms.

Lung disease has killed at least 400 uranium miners on this reservation, reports the Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, a Navajo advocacy group.

The Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles in the Four Corners area, where the boundaries of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico intersect like cross hairs of a rifle scope.

Here lies the world's largest deposit of uranium ore - and the Navajo who have lived on it for seven centuries. Neither troubled the other until the 1940s, when mining companies began blasting holes in stippled sandstone cliffs.

Virtually unburdened by health, safety or pollution regulations, the mines ran at least two shifts every day for nearly 40 years. By the 1980s, decreased demand closed the mines.

By then, Navajo men happy for the work and ignorant of radiation had loaded millions of tons of ore into open rail cars.

They wore no protective masks or clothing. They ate their lunches in holes choked with radioactive dust. They drank mine water that would have triggered a Geiger counter. They staggered home to wives who washed their filthy overalls with the family laundry.

The dying started in the 1960s. In places such as Cove, there are hardly any old men left. Instead, there are poisonous dumps, contaminated springs and thousands of gaping mines.

Recently declassified documents show the government knew from the start it was playing with poison but concealed the dangers.

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and apologized for failing to protect uranium workers and their families. It ordered payments of up to $100,000 to miners in Wyoming, Washington state and the Four Corners area, as well as to others who lived in the Nevada Test Site's fallout.

The money did not come easily. To get it, the Navajo had to produce documents which have no place among their people - marriage certificates, death certificates - pieces of paper unable to convey whole truths.

A special tribal court was convened to verify marriages, births and deaths, a process that takes months. Witnesses must appear "to verify, sometimes, a person's existence," said Timothy Benally, a former miner who leads the victims committee.

"We had six people die while their claims were pending."

On July 12, Congress amended the compensation act, increasing benefits and reducing paperwork. Still, the Navajo say it is not enough.

"Nothing can equal a human life," says Mrs. Joe.

Like the reservations, radiation is now part of the white man's legacy - a primer on what happens when the government tries to make amends for debts no man can pay.

The Navajo call themselves Din? (DinEH), meaning "the people."

Four Corners looks much as it did when they arrived in the 1300s from Northwest Canada. Red rock rises from upland plains. Deep canyons give way to barren badlands. The mountains, always green, sprout cedar and locoweed.

To the Navajo this is the Promised Land. The natural wonders of Shiprock, Canyon de Chelly and Rainbow Bridge are the dwelling places of their Holy Ones.

They plotted life according to nature's cycles. Many still do. In summer, when the valley shimmers in 110-degree heat, they climbed to the mountains. In winter, when howling winds batter the highlands, they returned to their hogans - dome-shaped dwellings of logs and clay - on the lowland.

From the Spaniards, they learned to herd. From the pueblo people, they learned to plant.

White soldiers came in the 1800s. During the Long Walk of 1864, more than 8,000 starving Navajo were driven 300 miles in the dead of winter to Fort Sumner on the Pecos River. There, they were prisoners. Nearly four years later, during a searing drought, they were sent back to a ravaged homeland now called a reservation.

Decades passed. With each one, it became increasingly clear that a life on the reservation wasn't much of a life at all. There was little work and less to do.

In the middle of World War II, when the government wanted something, it came calling in the name of patriotism.

First it courted men to be code talkers. The Japanese, who broke nearly every U.S. radio code, never cracked spoken Navajo. Then, the government wanted uranium to make atomic bombs.

When Kerr-McGee and other corporations arrived to run the mines, no one on the reservation thought twice about the work. Navajo miners were paid $45 a week, a small sum even then but better than nothing.

Kerr-McGee declined comment. "This is a subject that is under litigation," said a spokeswoman. The company is being sued for allegedly causing the deaths of two Navajo by exposing them to radiation.

The Oklahoma-based company gained notoriety for environmental accidents and the 1970s saga of employee Karen Silkwood, which was turned into a film. The energy conglomerate was America's leading producer and refiner of uranium.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Johnny Sam, now 60, worked a hopper for five years beginning in 1975, examining chunks of rock under a special light to identify high-grade uranium. The good stuff was blue. The low-grade was gray.

Most was yellow, meaning average. "Leetso" is the Navajo word for uranium. It means "yellow brown" or "yellow dirt."

"They didn't explain to us what it did to you," says Sam, his dark eyes scanning the hillsides of Church Rock, 17 miles northeast of Gallup, N.M., and site of one of the biggest nuclear accidents in U.S. history.

In 1979, a dam collapsed at United Nuclear Corp., unleashing 93 million gallons of radioactive waste that flowed 115 miles into Arizona. Regulators say there was no long-term environmental damage.

Residents, including Benally, say there is so much radiation sickness and contamination in Four Corners, who can isolate the effect of a specific incident?

Sam remembers foremen ordering miners into smoky shafts minutes after a TNT blast. The longest tunnels ran 1,800 feet, often with no ventilation. The men trudged in, their hats beaming shafts of light, their lungs filling with radioactive dust.

It's been 20 years since Sam wore a miner's hat. His breath comes hard now and his lungs burn. He's never smoked cigarettes; he blames the mines.

"Nothing bothered us right away," he said. "Fifteen or 20 years later, things bother you."

Cove Mesa, which rises more than 100 feet above the tiny outpost of Cove, is a four-hour drive to the west. Here, nothing moves but a lizard trailing a fine rain of dusty rock.

Donald Ellison, Jr. points to blank mine faces, each bearing a spray-painted number. Ellison left a well-paying highway job in Shiprock for temporary mine reclamation work in Cove. He wanted to come home. His 89-year-old father has been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Donald Ellison Sr. mined uranium for seven years at 40 cents an hour, starting in 1947. He spends his last days herding sheep, walking the land he was born on.

The son's job was to blast shut the abandoned shafts. His crew counted 2,000 of them within a 20-mile radius of here. No one is sure how many pockmark the rest of the reservation.

"The people use these mines to shelter their sheep," Donald Ellison Jr. says. "They store hay and grain in there and then feed it to the sheep. Then they eat the sheep."

Benally first walked into these holes in 1948 when he was 14. "The mining company said, 'The government needs a lot of this stuff.' That's all they told us," Benally said.

He worked on and off until 1964. He says he cannot get compensation because the government decided that he hadn't been blasted with enough radiation to meet its exposure standards.

Anger is not the Navajo way.

"What would you have us do?" Benally asks. "To say 'Enough is enough' means I take up a gun and start killing people." He stops, lets this hang in the dusty air.

"What we would really like," he says evenly, "is for the government to come in and clean up this mess they made."

Lung cancer is a torturous and humiliating way to die.

Breathing is agony. Control is lost over private things.

To his family, the swift demise of Ray Joe was stupefying. Suddenly, the sturdy bear of a man weighed less than 100 pounds and couldn't get out of bed.

"He tried to stay strong 'til the end," says David Joe. "But there was nothing left of him."

It started with wheezing. Ray Joe couldn't catch his breath. He found himself unable to haul well water to the house he had built with his two hands. His family took him to hospitals in Albuquerque, Gallup and Farmington. But the cancer in his lungs was too far gone.

Six months after his diagnosis, Ray Joe died.

His widow touches the tip of each finger, ticking off the names of other widows. When she runs out of fingers, she looks past the weeping faces of her children, scanning a list in her head.

"Some remarried," she says. "I married my husband. I still have feelings for him. That is why I am single."

It was the widows who first petitioned the government in 1960 for redress. As their husbands died, they began to talk among themselves. And to notice things. Like the way death started with not being able to catch a full breath.

The wives remembered other things that seized their hearts. How they used to bring uranium chunks in the house at night so their children could watch them glow in the dark. How their husbands' work clothes, covered in radioactive muck, sometimes sat in the kitchen for a week because running water didn't come to this reservation until the 1980s.

"The government destroyed this community," said David Joe. "They destroyed our lives."

The $100,000 from Washington, D.C., does not ease his mother's pain. Most of it went toward her husband's medical bills.

The government should give more, says Mrs. Joe.

"A new home," she says, as if that might mend her heart. "They should build us new homes."

She looks down at the wrinkled hands clasped in her lap. They hold no answers.