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Radioactive Revival in New Mexico | The Nation

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Radioactive Revival in New Mexico

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The first uranium boom left a toxic legacy to the people of the area. Uranium workers, inadequately protected from the dangers of mining and milling, developed a range of maladies. Although the government knew of the health risks of radioactive dust--European studies from the 1920s and '30s had linked uranium mining with lung cancer--officials did not require mine companies to ventilate shafts or to limit worker exposure to radon, the radioactive gas released during mining. Duncan Holaday, an industrial engineer at the Public Health Service, discovered that radon levels in US mines in the 1940s were as high as those found in European mines in the 1920s. "He tried to convince the mine operators and the Atomic Energy Commission that they were going to have a big epidemic here if they didn't start ventilating the mines. But nobody paid much attention to him," says Dr. Victor Archer, now in his 80s and living in Salt Lake City. Archer worked with Holaday for nearly two decades on an epidemiological study for PHS on the relationship between radon and lung cancer. Though he knew the miners were at risk of developing lung cancer, Archer says he was not allowed to warn the 2,500 men in the study about their unsafe work environments. "It was understood if we upset the miners...then the mine operators would not let us examine the miners," he says.

About the Author

Shelley Smithson
Shelley Smithson, a freelance writer in Urbana, Illionis, teaches journalism at the University of Illinois.

The researchers repeatedly warned mine operators and state and federal mining officials of the dangers of working in unventilated mines. "We'd tell them about the European experience, and they'd say, 'Those foreigners are different from our miners,'" Archer recalls. "Mostly they would object because to ventilate would cost them money."

Just as the researchers warned, uranium workers developed lung cancers, as well as a long list of other ailments. In 1990, after fifteen years of litigation and lobbying by the families of deceased miners, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides payments of $100,000 to miners, millers and ore haulers who contracted specific lung diseases, as well as some millers and ore haulers diagnosed with certain renal diseases. Congress recognized the government's failure to protect those who worked in "mines that were providing uranium for the primary use and benefit of the nuclear weapons program of the United States." But the act covers just a fraction of those afflicted only before 1971, when the government stopped buying uranium for its weapons program and passed standards to limit worker radiation exposure. Post-1971 workers who suffer from the same illnesses say they too should be compensated. They claim that the government's radiation limits were insufficient and that regulators did not force companies to follow rules intended to protect workers' health.

The new uranium rush has resurrected antagonisms among Indians, Anglos and Hispanics and sparked a bitter war over the future of uranium mining in New Mexico. Many Indians say they were, and still are, treated as second-class citizens in stores, restaurants and businesses in border towns, where their sales taxes support city coffers. Non-Indians complain that Indians living on reservations do not pay property taxes yet are able to vote in school bond referendums, which often benefit reservation communities. There's anger, too, about the prevalence of drunk driving on the roads between the reservations, where alcohol is illegal, and the border towns, where bars are plentiful. But few issues evoke more emotion than the prospect of uranium mining.

On a Saturday afternoon in June 2008, racial tensions simmered when 700 people packed into the high school gymnasium in Grants. The Route 66 town is home to 8,800 people, two prisons, a handful of 1950s-era motels and twice as many fast food restaurants. On one side of the gym sat a crowd of mostly American Indian residents, who had come from nearby communities to voice their opposition to proposed uranium mining near Mount Taylor. The 11,000-foot snowcapped peak rises above the stark badlands between Grants and Albuquerque and is sacred to five tribes in the Southwest--the Navajos, Acomas, Lagunas, Zunis and Hopis. Last year the Navajo Nation joined twenty other Southwestern tribes in opposing mining on Mount Taylor. Indians claim that protection of the mountain is crucial to their religions and cultures.

Many Indians fear that pollution from uranium mines and mills could contaminate the mountain springs, rivers and aquifers that supply water for crop irrigation, homes and businesses on their land. The Navajo Nation Council banned new uranium mining on Navajo land in 2005.

"If you contaminate our groundwater, where do we go for water after that?" Shirley demands.

In the bleachers on the other side of the gym sat mostly Anglo and Hispanic residents from Grants and neighboring towns. They were there to speak in support of mining and against a state plan to set aside the top of Mount Taylor as a culturally protected landmark.

In June state officials voted to make the cultural listing of the mountain permanent, a decision that could hinder uranium mining on private and public land within and adjacent to the cultural-property boundaries. That possibility led to a fierce campaign by the uranium industry that pitted Anglo and Hispanic landowners against the state and the tribes. Commenting on the move to designate Mount Taylor a traditional cultural property, industry lobbyist Marita Noon called it "a sneak attack, sadly perpetrated largely by Native Americans against white men."

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