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Mole's Progressive Democrat

The Progressive Democrat Newsletter grew out of the frustration of the 2004 election. Originally intended for New York City progressives, its readership is now national. For anyone who wants to be alerted by email whenever this newsletter is updated (usually weekly), please send your email address and let me know what state you live in (so I can keep track of my readership).

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I am a research biologist in NYC. Married with two kids living in Brooklyn.

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  • Friday, July 31, 2009

    Arizona focus: Uranium Contamination in Navajo Country

    When people talk about nuclear energy, this is the kind of thing they tend to ignore because it makes their industry look bad.

    Seems there is massive uranium contamination in Navajo Country. From the NY Times:

    The legacy wrought from decades of uranium mining is long and painful here on the expansive reservation. Over the years, Navajo miners extracted some four million tons of uranium ore from the ground, much of it used by the United States government to make weapons.

    Many miners died from radiation-related illnesses; some, unaware of harmful health effects, hauled contaminated rocks and tailings from local mines and mills to build homes for their families.

    Now, those homes are being demolished and rebuilt under a new government program that seeks to identify what are very likely dozens of uranium-contaminated structures still standing on Navajo land and to temporarily relocate people living in them until the homes can be torn down and rebuilt...

    Using old lists of potentially contaminated structures, federal and Navajo scientists have fanned out to rural reaches of the 27,000 square mile reservation — which includes swaths of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — to measure levels of radium, a decay product of uranium that can cause lung cancer. Of 113 structures assessed so far, 27 contained radiation levels that were above normal.


    This contamination happened decades ago and people have had to live with it all this time. Mining (whether it is coal, uranium or whatever) HAS TO BE DONE SAFELY. Yet in America (and, of course, even worse in places like China and Russia) safety and the environment is ignored in favor of money, and so people are forced to live with contamination for what amounts to generations. From the Southwest Research and Information Center:

    In the late 1970s, Navajo uranium miners and their families asked for help to show that their lung diseases had been caused by their work in underground uranium mines in the 1940s-1960s. SRIC staff responded with medical and scientific data, in-community education strategies, and legislative support. As a result, Congress adopted legislation in 1990 to compensate former miners and their survivors. Ten years later, with SRIC's on going technical support to advocacy groups, the law was amended to cover virtually all uranium miners who worked before 1971.

    Despite making great strides in protecting miners' and community health, compensating former miners and their families, and cleaning up uranium mill sites, significant problems stemming from the legacy of uranium development still exist today in the Four Corners Area. Hundreds of abandoned mines have not been cleaned up and present environmental and health risks in many Navajo communities. Health conditions in those communities have never been studied despite being impacted by uranium development that dates back to the late-40s and early-50s.

    Some of these same communities are now confronted with proposed new uranium solution mining that threatens the only source of drinking water for 10,000 to 15,000 people living in the Eastern Navajo Agency in northwestern New Mexico. Since 1994, SRIC has worked with those communities and the community-based group, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM-CCT), to stop the proposed mines through community education, interaction with Navajo Nation leaders, and a seven-year-long legal challenge of the mines' federal license. The work of SRIC, ENDAUM-CCT and their law firms - the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) and the Harmon-Curran firm in Washington, D.C. - has erected major roadblocks to the proposed mining, but has not yet terminated the license. Citizen opposition to mining is widespread, and the Navajo Nation leadership recently determined that uranium solution mining is unsafe and that the proposed mines are too risky to the health and environment of the Navajo people.

    Against this background, working with Navajo groups and communities to stop new mining and continuing to assess and document the health and environmental effects of past uranium development are the principal focuses of UIAP work.

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