In the late fall of 1974, several Navajo uranium miners and widows of miners squeezed into my tiny space in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. They were seeking, with quiet dignity, some justice for digging up the uranium that fueled the U.S. nuclear arsenal. At the time, I was an entry level staff member for Senator Jim Abourezk (D-SD).

Some were struggling to breathe as they told me about working in the rugged landscape of their reservation on the Colorado Plateau. For minimum wage or less, they described how they blasted open seams of ore, built wooden beam supports in the mine shafts, and dug ore pieces with picks and wheelbarrows. The shafts were deep, with little or no ventilation. The bitter tasting dust was all pervasive. They ate in the mines and drank water that dripped from the walls.

The water, it turned out, contained high quantities of radon — a radioactive gas emanating from the ore. Radon decays into heavy, more radiotoxic isotopes called “radon daughters,” which include isotopes of polonium, bismuth, and lead. Radon daughters’ alpha particle emissions are considered to be about 20 times more carcinogenic than x-rays. As they lodge in the respiratory system, especially the deep lung, radon daughters emit energetic ionizing radiation that can damage cells of sensitive internal tissues.

From 1942 to 1971, the United States nuclear weapons program purchased about 250,000 metric tons of uranium concentrated from more than 100 million tons of ore. Although more than half came from other nations, the uranium industry heavily depended on Indian miners in the Colorado Plateau.

By the 1970s an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 of the 12,000 uranium miners employed in the United States were Navajos. They dug up nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore — nearly a quarter of the total national underground production in the United States. In doing so, Navajo miners were among the most severely exposed group of workers to ionizing radiation in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

The miners were never warned of the hazards of radioactivity in the mines in which they inhaled, ingested, and brought home toxins along with their contaminated clothing. Withholding information about the hazards of the workplace was deeply embedded in the bureaucratic culture of the nuclear weapons program.

The hazards of uranium mining had been known for centuries. As early as 1556, dust in the Ore Mountain mines in Germany was reported as having “corrosive qualities.” The dust “eats away the lungs and implants consumption in the body,” according to a contemporary source. By 1879, researchers found that 75 percent of the miners in the Ore Mountains had died from lung cancer.

By 1932, Ore Mountain miners were receiving compensation for their cancers from the German government. Uranium mining was also convincingly linked to lung cancer by dozens of epidemiological and animal studies by the late 1930s.

By the early 1960s, studies by the U.S. Public Health Service showed that working in these radioactive mines led to an epidemic of lung cancer, among other diseases. It fell upon the United States government to compensate the Navajo miners, since the nuclear weapons program was the main purchaser of uranium until the early 1970s. Yet despite the fact that the miners were sent into harm’s way for the nation’s defense, the U.S. government turned a deaf ear to their plight.

Kee Begay worked in the mines for 29 years and was dying of lung cancer. “The mines were poor and not fit for human beings,” he testified at a citizen’s hearing I helped organize in 1980. Begay also lost a son to cancer. “He was one of many children that used to play on the uranium piles during those years. We had a lot of uranium piles near our homes — just about fifty or a hundred feet away or so. Can you imagine? Kids go out and play on those piles.”

After my meeting with the Navajos, I naively assumed this was a straightforward problem that could be fixed. After all, there was no dispute about the scientific facts about the hazards and the negligence of the U.S. government.

Within a couple weeks, I prepared draft legislation to extend the federal Black Lung Benefits program to uranium mining. Because of Senate rules, the bill had to run a gauntlet through several committees. The most important gatekeeper was Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Interior Committee, where my boss chaired the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs.

Several weeks — and then two months — went by and there was no word from the Interior Committee staff about the bill.

Finally, after repeated calls and a heated encounter with a senior staff member of the Committee, I was told this bill will never see the light of day. They said it would “cast a dark cloud” over the atomic energy program — especially since Jackson was pushing to fund an expensive prototype reactor at the Hanford site in his home state of Washington. I refused to back off.

Jackson’s staffer became so angry that he yelled at me, saying “Indians don’t have any rights because they are a conquered people.” Having burned my bridges with Jackson’s staff, I knew that my time as a Senate staffer would soon come to an end.

I helped as much as I could after leaving Jim Abourezk’s office. However, it took another 16 years — involving congressional hearings and a major lawsuit, not to mention a considerable amount of effort by the miners and their families — before the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed in October 1990. The Act offered a formal apology for sending people into harm’s way and provided a one-time compensation of $100,000 for uranium miners.

Financial compensation came too little and too late. It would never be enough for illness and death that could have been prevented.

The legacy of U.S. uranium mining lingers on. More than three billion metric tons of mining and milling wastes were generated in the United States. Today, Navajos still live near about one third of all abandoned uranium mines in the country.

This story comes from our collection, Bob Alvarez: Lessons From a Lifetime of Activism.

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