Sunday, November 19, 2006

Unintended Consequences Can Go On and On

The L.A. Times has an extraordinarily long and thoughtful piece about the unintended health consequences of uranium mining that continue today, even though mines are long closed. Again, mine safety and health issues do not always stop at the mine gate. They can impact whole communities profoundly. The focus here is the Navajo reservation.

From 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were chiseled and blasted from the mountains and plains. The mines provided uranium for the Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort to develop an atomic bomb, and for the weapons stockpile built up during the arms race with the Soviet Union.

Private companies operated the mines, but the U.S. government was the sole customer. The boom lasted through the early '60s. As the Cold War threat gradually diminished over the next two decades, more than 1,000 mines and four processing mills on tribal land shut down.

The companies often left behind radioactive waste piles and open tunnels and pits. Few bothered to fence the properties or post warning signs. Federal inspectors seldom intervened.

Over the decades, Navajos inhaled radioactive dust from the waste piles, borne aloft by fierce desert winds.

They drank contaminated water from abandoned pit mines that filled with rain. They watered their herds there, then butchered the animals and ate the meat.

Their children dug caves in piles of mill tailings and played in the spent mines...

In every corner of the reservation, sandy mill tailings and chunks of ore, squared off nicely by blasting, were left unattended at old mines and mills, free for the taking. They were fashioned into bread ovens, cisterns, foundations, fireplaces, floors and walls.

Navajo families occupied radioactive dwellings for decades, unaware of the risks...

Early on, federal scientists knew that mine workers were at heightened risk for developing lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases in 15 or 20 years. Many did, and eventually their plight drew wide attention. In 1990, Congress offered the former miners an apology and compensation of up to $150,000 each.

But pervasive environmental hazards remained.

Now, the article relates, people on the reservation are still suffering high rates of cancer. The whole article speaks for itself and is well worth reading.


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