4. Dropping Like Flies in Red Valley

Chapter 1: The United States
Part 3: Uranium Mining on the Navajo Reservation

Stretching out in all directions, the brick-red plains and the distant mountains stood out in breathtaking contrast to the cloudless blue sky. The set of numerous Westerns, Red Valley is a Navajo reservation located to the south of Monument Valley National Park. In this valley, we heard, the men were dropping like flies from lung cancer.

Raymond Joe, a former miner whom we met at the local town offices, spoke to us about conditions in the mines. His face was swollen, his skin a sickly pallor. "When the mining of uranium was at its peak, those mountains were lit up at night like Christmas trees. We were working day and night to get the stuff out of the ground. And this is the result," he said, showing us a scar on his back—Joe had had an operation to remove a tumor from his lung at a Shiprock hospital.

Joe first became a miner in 1952, the year the United States exploded its first hydrogen bomb, ushering in a new phase of the nuclear arms race. The mines moved from a system of two eight-hour shifts to three, so that uranium could be dug out of the ground twenty-four hours a day. The uranium rush was in full swing, and the earth shook with explosions, filling the mines with suffocating clouds of dust.

"The white foreman would give us the order to go down. We had no protection like masks or anything—just a helmet."

Once inside, the miners would load the rubble onto wagons and move them outside, where the yellow ore was removed and loaded onto a truck. The men worked with bare hands, and were constantly covered in a thin coat of dust. The reward for this backbreaking work was ninety cents an hour. "There was no other work," Joe continued. "We knew that the rock was used for making atomic bombs. But we never suspected that the yellow stuff itself was dangerous. We never worried about our health, either."

Joe traveled around Utah and Colorado, working a total of nineteen years in the mines. He left in 1975 after a medical check in Shiprock indicated that he may have cancer. His benefit of $283 per month was insufficient to bring up seven children, so his wife Dorothy went to work in a textile factory to make ends meet.

At the peak of the rush, two hundred uranium mines were to be found in the mountains of Red Valley. One hundred and eighty households were clustered in three small villages, and 150 people from them worked at the mines. In the late 1970s, lung cancer began to occur frequently in this group; fifty men have died so far, others are in hospital. The figures tell the story only too plainly. Of the thirty-two Navajo males diagnosed as having lung cancer between 1969 and 1982, twenty-three worked in the uranium mines. None of them smoked.

According to Dr. John Samet of the University of New Mexico, who conducted the survey, the connection between their cancer and the radon gas in the mine is irrefutable. Moreover, Dr. Samet believes that "the number of lung cancer patients will continue to grow." Ventilation equipment to reduce the concentration of the gas was only installed in the mines in the early 1970s. Joe and his fellow miners had worked for all those years with no protection whatsoever.