Where It All Starts: Uranium Mines & Mills

In the United States and world-wide, about 70% of all uranium reserves lie beneath indigenous people's lands. For a long time the Jackpile Mine near Laguna Pueblo in Arizona was the largest in the world. Then came bigger mines in Australia and Cree country in Canada. Before the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan in 1945, Native American miners in the U.S. were already suffering from radiation illness, from mining the ore that made the Hiroshima and Nagaasaki bombs.

Uranium tailings, left over from ore extraction at mills, retain up to 85% of the ore radioactivity for up to 100,000 years. For each ton of uranium oxide produced, up to 40,000 tons of tailings are left behind, in addition to toxic heavy metals. Over 400 abandoned mines, plus mill sites and thousands of test holes continued to poison soils, air and water. Cleanup efforts, mandated in 1978, are moving forward slowly.

For decades, miners had only radioactive water to drink and wash with, often taking it home to families. Protected only by hard hats, uranium dust was carried home on clothing and skin. Native homes and schools were built from tailing-based concrete all over the west. Children played in tailing piles and ponds. Often child mortality figures were higher than for miners themselves.

Earl Saltwater, Jr., a Navajo miner, blames his current hearing loss, kidney disease, diabetes and breathing problems on his work in a uranium mine, though he only worked for about six months in 1968 and 1969. He said he was fired because he was sickened and started vomiting in the mine.*

Mines Have Been Closed Since 1992, But New Mines Are Wanted Now

For the first time in years, the price of uranium is rising and new mines are seeking licenses in the U.S. and abroad again. New methods, such as injecting oxidizing chemicals into the Earth and processing the resulting solution, are making uranium mining look profitable again.

In Church Rock, New Mexico, the site of the 95 million gallon radioactive spill into the Rio Puerco on July 16, 1979, Hydro Resources, Inc. had hopes  to open several mines and a 

Above: Recycled uranium contaminated with plutonium and other dangerous elements was shipped by the U.S. nuclear weapons progrm to federal plants, private companies and university research centers in at least 30 states (green) and Puerto Rico.

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processing plant. However, the Navajo Nation is refusing to grant any further mining licenses on its lands so far. Recent efforts have even sought to open a mine within the Grand Canyon itself, in sacred and pristine Havasupai country. 

Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and other regional groups are challenging the ‘cleaned-up’ water standards being applied to their case. They are 22 times higher than EPA proposed national standards, and "at least 20 times greater than the level of uranium in drinking water that has been shown to cause kidney impairment in chronically exposed individuals."**

*Kelley M., "Uranium Miners, families bring tales of pain to Washington", Cortez Journal (NM)

**"Intervenors Say Uranium Cleanup Standard is Unsafe", ENDAUM Press Release, 3/23/2000