The Navajo people chose to settle in the southwestern part of the United States, with their Nation occupying territory in three states: Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. It is the largest land area that a Native American tribe was able to retain through negotiations with the U.S. government more than a century ago.
This land area was found to be rich in uranium and atomic and nuclear science began to take shape in the middle of the 20th century. It would provide a source of riches initially for the Navajo, but it would quickly turn into an environmental nightmare.
Hundreds of Abandoned Uranium Mines Exist
There are several hundred abandoned uranium mines which currently exist in the Navajo Nation. These sites have not been cleaned up either, adding another layer of risk to those living in the area.
Uranium mining is the most problematic activity for the industry due to the health and environmental effects it causes. The radioactivity of the ore is an issue that cannot be chemically mitigated using current technologies. That means a new mine, such as the one proposed for northwestern New Mexico, threatens the only drinking water supply for up to 15,000 people.
The effects of uranium last for decades without providing relief. Even though activities have ceased, there are still issues that this community faces each day because of what happened to the environment.
The Church Rock Disaster: 40 Years Later
The year 2019 will be the 40th anniversary of the Church Rock disaster in the Navajo environment. It was the largest accidental release of radioactive material in the history of the United States. Due to a tailing dam bursting, 1,100 tons of radioactive mill wastes, and 90 million gallons of contaminated liquid went through Arizona to the Rio Puerco River, which is still unusable as a source of drinking water.
Although the Navajo Nation has been diligent in their efforts to stop the exploitation of their land over the past century, there are still significant issues which have slipped through that require ongoing cleanup work. Educating everyone in the region, not just the native communities, in the dangers of radioactivity and uranium will help families understand just how dangerous this activity happens to be.
There are many raw materials that the mining industry could access in the Navajo environment. Uranium should not be one of them.