DISPATCHES
The Navajo Reservation’s Three Mile Island
by Rob Schultheis
Mar 24, 2011 | 2296 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
You’d think by now that 9/11, the New Orleans disaster and the Japanese tsunami would have taught us that in this world none of us are safe unless everyone everywhere is safe, that the lives of all human beings are inextricably bound together and that mankind and the wellbeing of the earth are interdependent and always will be.

Instead, the opposite seems to be happening.  The Tea Party Yahoos and the corporations behind them preach that there is no such thing as the common good or human empathy, that alienation and conflict are somehow creative, and that we are lords of the planet and have the right to plunder it all we want. 

Well,  “Every man for himself and God against all” ain’t my bumper sticker of choice, I’ll tell you that. It’s a wretched, degraded philosophy, no matter how many Stars and Stripes the Tea Party tries to wrap it in. 

Oh, and one more thing: It doesn’t work.  The American soldiers who fought in Vietnam summed it all up in two brief sayings as wise as anything in the Buddhist sutras: “What goes around, comes around” and, if you ignore that law, “Payback’s a bitch.”

This is my circuitous rambling waxy of getting to the real subject of this column: How the media’s coverage of the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan reveals an uncomfortable amount of evidence about America’s endemic racism. All week long I’ve been hearing broadcasters refer to Three Mile Island, as “America’s worst nuclear accident,” and pro-nuclear energy advocates countering with, “Nobody died at Three Mile Island.”  

In reality, our worst nuclear disaster happened on the Navajo Indian Reservation; the catastrophe unfolded over several decades, climaxing in the radioactive flood that roared down the Rio Puerco in western New Mexico, poisoning an area comparably to what was left by the Chernobyl meltdown.  

Hundreds and hundreds of people died and continued to die of cancer as a result of the decades of mining and the Rio Puerco flood, but since 95 percent of the dead are Navajo Indians, it’s as if it never happened.

It reminds me of the old Afghan saying, “To die and then be forgotten is like being killed twice.”

The whole history of uranium mining on Native American lands is a saga of greed, cruelty, racism and corruption unrivalled in American history.

Beginning in the late 1940s, the arms race with the Soviet Union triggered a boom in uranium mining in the West. Most of the uranium ore turned out to be on Native American lands; the Navajo Reservation alone contains approximately a quarter of the total U.S. supply. This coincidence suited big corporations like Kerr-McGee just fine; there was massive unemployment on the Navajo Rez, so people were hungry for jobs, any jobs; plus there was little or no enforcement of laws regulating working conditions or safety. The Kerr-McGee mines were not ventilated, because ventilation would lower corporate profits, so the miners breathed in radon gas, which causes lung cancer, all day.

The connection between radon and lung cancer had been known since the 1930s, but no one told the miners; they weren’t even warned against drinking the groundwater that seeped through the mines. The result: hundreds upon hundreds of deaths from lung cancer among ex-miners over the years, and vast uncovered tailings piles and uranium-polluted aquifers that have caused the deaths of countless Navajo non-miners, as well, and continues to, today. That wind-whipped dust you almost always see when you drive through Shiprock? Much of it comes from the tailings nearby left by the uranium-mining corporations, and it is toxic.

How do you measure someone coughing their lungs to pieces as they die from lung cancer versus a private jet, a golf club membership, a second or third home in Aspen or Mountain Village? I'm not sure that a mathematical formula exists.

The Navajo Reservation’s Three Mile Island occurred on July 16, 1979, near Church Rock, NM, when an earthen dam enclosing a tailings pond gave way at a uranium mine owned by United Uranium Corporation, and 100 million gallons of highly radioactive water roared down the Rio Puerco, permeating the groundwater over an enormous area. The water just below the broken dam was tested after the accident and found to be 7,000 times more radioactive than the level considered safe for drinking. The national media barely covered the event, and UUC did only a cursory cleanup of a small fraction of the 1,100 tons of lethal mud left by the flood. 

More than three decades later, people and their livestock continue to drink the radioactive groundwater; it’s the only water around.

Uranium mining is only one of the ways the Navajo Reservation has been exploited for corporate profit by the energy industry and others. The huge open-pit coal mine at Black Mesa feeds that monstrous smoking power plant from Hell at Page, and there are coal gasification-fueled power plants all along the eastern edge of the Reservation, the so-called “Checkerboard Area.” The electricity squeezed from the earth that traditional Navajos regard as a sacred and sentient being goes to cities like Albuquerque, Phoenix and Los Angeles, where it is wasted by seas of lights left on all night for no reason and households with innumerable useless appliances and electronic games. Why play real soccer on a team when you can pretend to play Wii-soccer all day by yourself on your 40 inch TV?  

Meanwhile, on a planet with rapidly dwindling non-renewable energy resources, the petrochemical and power industries constantly urge people to consume more, and more and more of what they supply.

Payback really is going to be a bitch, and this time not only innocent Native Americans are going to have to pay the price.
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