Former Los Angeles Times reporter Pasternak debuts with an explosive account of U.S. neglect of the Navajo Indians during the rush to find the uranium required to create the first atomic bomb.
In the 1940s, private companies began mining operations on the Navajo Nation reservation, which covers 27,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Hiring tribal people as miners, the firms unearthed the “yellow dirt,” or uranium, needed for the Manhattan Project. For years, until the federal government finally had a surfeit of uranium in 1957, Navajos, many impoverished, continued working the mines, extracting four million tons of uranium ore and never knowing that their exposure to radiation could cause cancers and birth defects. The “slow environmental catastrophe” harmed several generations and continues to contaminate air and water for many of the 180,000 people on the reservation. Pasternak’s complex book, winner of a J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Award, details this largely unknown story in a narrative that will leave readers outraged over the largely uncaring and callous behavior of U.S. and corporate officials who were well aware of the mining’s toll on the Navajo. In 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission disregarded its Colorado health chief’s call for safeguards at uranium mines and mills, claiming it was the responsibility of state safety inspectors (who had no training in radiation). In 1952, Colorado and federal health officials were ignored when they urged improved ventilation and other mining safeguards. Two years later, federal research teams began monitoring the health of miners, producing data for the U.S. military on the effects of radiation. Pasternak writes that the pressure to produce uranium for the U.S. weapons program, conflicting agency priorities and the anticipated high costs of addressing health issues at hundreds of mines, all helped prevent action. Her own 2006 Times investigative series spurred congressional hearings and steps by federal agencies, including an ongoing clean-up of Navajo homes built of contaminated rocks.
Disturbing and well-documented—and hopefully effective. Though tribal leaders have banned yellow-dirt extraction, mining companies hope to resume operations.