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Sludge contaminating rivers
Poor labor conditions in uranium mines
Wastes remain after mine closing

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New Mexico, USA
Navajo ReservationHealth problems steadily increasing

Colorful, fantastically shaped rocks jut from complex configurations of multiple strata. We are about 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. At Church Rock on the Navajo Reservation near the Arizona border, the natural beauty that delights the eye fails to quell fears about invisible radiation.

No protective mask

"See, waste from uranium mining is scattered all over here-radioactive earth without even a soil cover." Karl Katenay (52), a former employee of a uranium mine owned by Kerr-McGee Company, stood on his former work site. He was one of the last workers still in the mines when they were closed in 1985.

"We were digging uranium ore at the bottom, 1800 feet down, and they didn't even give us protective masks. When the price of uranium fell, they closed the mine. They just buried it all right here-contaminated bulldozers, shovels-it's terrible."

United Nuclear Metals Co. stood next to the Kerr-McGee mine. When the dam containing uranium sludge burst in 1979, about 360,000 liters of radioactive substances spilled into a river near a Colorado River tributary. A full 1,100 tons of sludge drifited downstream, creating a zone of contamination that extended to Arizona and Nevada. After a hasty cleanup, United Nuclear Metals also shut down in 1985.

Radioactive waste contaminated the groundwater, and strong winds carried uranium sludge through the air to nearby ranches and farms. Cattle and sheep drank the radioactive river water and chewed the grass. Children of local tribes played in that river and on that ranchland.

Almost 400 dead

The population of the Navajo Reservation is about 250,000. They live on about 6.87 million hectares (about 26,530 sq. miles). A successful atomic bomb test by the former Soviet Union in 1949 spurred a sudden uranium mining rush on a Navajo Reservation bordered by New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Mining continued here until mining production in Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere depressed prices. Production was eventually halted in the latter half of the 1980s.

Working in substandard conditions, many Navajo men who worked in the mines contracted lung cancer or other respiratory diseases.

Anna Rondon (42) of the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum, who joined Katenay as my guide, sighed, "Already 350 to 400 workers have died from cancer and other diseases. In some communities, the majority of women are widows."

There are more than 1,000 uranium mine sites on Navajo land. Of the 110 communities within the reservation, more than one-third are reportedly affected by radioactivity. Even so, neither the former mining companies nor the US government is making any move to clean up the vast amounts of dumped radioactive wastes.

Congenital defects

"After the war, the atomic bombs continued to harm the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same is true of the closed uranium mines. There's an increase in the number of newborns with congenital defects. I wish the scientists who say the level is too low to hurt anyone would take this waste home to their own backyards."

Rondon and others are now working to make the Navajo Reservation a Nuclear-Free Zone, which would include banning the mining of uranium.

(Story and photos by Akira Tashiro)