Chernobyl Times 100

I don’t have cancer yet, but all this uranium dirt poisoned my life anyway.

Geologists turned up in the summer of 1943. They drilled into the rocks, took some samples, and marked the results of their work on maps. They had reached the most desolate of places. When there were no more roads, they rode horses. Obviously they were looking intensively for something, but whatever it was, the task was not easy, because the Navajo reservation covers over 70,000 square kilometers (about 27,000 square miles) across three states — Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. The soil here is red, rocky and in some places it forms huge, impressive and strangely shaped blocks of rock, seeming to defy the laws of physics.

The most picturesque spot, Monument Valley, was made famous by John Ford, who shot the western movie ”Stagecoach” with John Wayne in the lead role, five years before the geologists’ arrival. Today, the picture of U.S. Route 163 leading to Monument Valley is on the cover of every second U.S. guide, and rightly so, because this place — at least in the subjective opinion of this Gazeta Wyborcza correspondent — makes a bigger impression than the Great Canyon in Colorado.

It is no surprise then that the local Native Americans, displaced by white settlers in 1864, dreamed of returning to the land of their ancestors.

If somebody had asked the geologists — although nobody did ask, because most Native Americans spoke little or no English at that time — they would have said that they worked for Union Mines Development Corporation. It was a company nobody had heard of even in the white people’s business world and which some time earlier had opened an office on 42nd Street in New York’s Manhattan. “We were sent here,” the geologists would have continued, “to look for vanadium.”

This metal is added to steel in order to increase its endurance. In the summer of 1943, America needed vanadium as never before — for the protection of tanks and ships, and for bullets to more effectively pierce German and Japanese armor. And for a long time it was known that there were deposits of this useful metal on the Navajo reservation. Although Indian reservation authorities had long resisted agreeing to the exploration, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and in response to President Roosevelt’s appeal, they changed their minds.

Therefore, the geologists’ explanation would not have raised any suspicions, although it was just an excuse. In fact they came to look for something else, something they called ”S-37,” a substance whose real name was not even mentioned in secret reports sent to Washington, but which was needed by scientists who took part in a secret program of building a new, powerful weapon. The Union Mines Development Corporation acted as a cover created for the purpose of this plan whose code word was the “Manhattan Project.”

We Will Work Hard

“In the language of the Navajo tribe the word ”radiation” does not even exist,” says Lillie Lane, who, within the tribal authorities, deals with the problem of abandoned uranium mines at the reservation. We speak in a hotel restaurant in Window Rock, where the Indian government headquarters are. She did not invite me to the office, probably because it’s so shoddy that she did not want a journalist from some distant place to see it. Everything at the reservation is shoddy, unemployment reaches 45 percent and half of the residents live without electricity and drinking water.

“To explain to our people what ”radiation” means, white newcomers would have had to explain this word using many sentences. The Navajo people were not able to understand it, let alone foresee the miseries that came afterward.”

In a sense, the geologists did indeed look for vanadium, or more precisely — carnotite, a substance whose chemical name is “potassium uranium vanadate.” Apart from vanadium, it contains uranium.

The scientists were led by Robert Oppenheimer and had plenty of uranium because America had secured a large portion of the deposits coming from the Belgian Congo. But the government in Washington did not want to import a strategic resource from abroad. It ordered an intensive search for uranium deposits within the country.

In August 1943, the company Vanadium Corporation of America, acquainted with the Manhattan Project, proposed an offer to the Navajo tribe: you give us permission to extract carnotite for 10 years, and we will give you 10 percent of the profits. The reservation authorities eagerly agreed, and even wrote a letter to Gen. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe: ” We, the undersigned Navajo Indians of Monument Valley … will work harder to get more vanadium from under the rocks on our reservation, so the guns and airplanes and munitions you need over there where you are fighting will be strong. We are proud that our reservation has vanadium to help win this war.”

Vanadium Corporation was able to get to work without any difficulty. It did not extract much until the end of the war, but better that than nothing at all. The ”Little Boy” as the atomic bomb dumped at Hiroshima was waggishly called, contained a small percent of uranium that came from the Navajo reservation.

Nobody Warned Them

After Japan’s capitulation, it turned out that the need for uranium was growing. The Cold War began and so did the arms race. The Russians, thanks to the common effort of their scientists and spies, detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what had changed was that there was no longer a need for, or even the possibility of, secrecy. The U.S. government publicly announced that there were uranium deposits on the Navajo land. The reservation authorities agreed to mining under one condition — that the companies carrying out the extraction would employ Navajos in the first instance.

For thousands of unqualified Indians, positions in the uranium mine were the only chance to get work, and in addition, work that paid quite well. “My father, who at the end of the 1940s was entering adult life, took the chance,”* says Phil Harrison who, like Lillie, has a completely American first name and surname, but like her, is 100 percent Navajo. We talked at McDonald’s in the town of Shiprock, around two hours drive from Window Rock. Phil, a brawny man in his 60s, does not have an office, not even a shoddy one, although in the history of his tribe, he has played a significant part.

“It wasn’t a difficult job,” he says (he himself worked in the mine for a couple of months). “We drilled horizontal corridors in rocks to place explosives in suitable places. The last person had to light up the detonating fuse and run afterward, usually in the darkness, toward the exit of the mineshaft. But let’s not exaggerate about the hurry, the explosives expert knew well how long the fuse should be to give you enough time to escape!”

The true danger was different. The extraction released carnotite from the rocks, and tiny particles of radon, a radioactive gas, appeared in the air. Workers breathed it.

“My father was never warned that it might be harmful. Even I, when I went to work as a miner 20 years later, was not told anything! None of us knew, but the companies that employed us knew. Yes, yes, they knew,” says Phil in a tone in which sorrow is mixed with anger.

That anger was his driving force throughout his entire adult life. Apart from his father, four uncles also worked in the uranium mines. All of them, apart from one uncle, died of lung cancer.

“My father (died) in 1971, after nearly 20 years in the mine. The same happened to many Navajos,” says Phil. “In the history of our tribe this tragedy can only be compared to the Long Walk.”

The Death Walk

The Long Walk is like a creation myth for the Navajo. Before it, the tribe was a group of loosely related clans; after it they became, as Phil now proudly emphasizes, a nation. Kit Carson, a famous adventurer, was instrumental in this change. His achievements were known throughout the Wild West and were included in cheap dime novels, which Carson did not read as he was illiterate. Toward the end of his life, he served in the army and was ordered to eliminate the Navajo tribe, which attacked white settlers and even attacked Fort Defiance, the first American army base on the territory of present-day Arizona.

Carson used the scorched earth policy — methodically surrounding the Native Americans and destroying their peach orchards, whose cultivation was their specialty. In 1864, a decision was made to resettle 10,000 Navajo around 500 kilometers (about 310 miles) to the west, to the desolated Fort Summer regions, so that they would not attack anyone. Accompanied by a cavalry escort, all were driven off: men, the elderly, women and children. To this day Navajo people tell horrific stories about the Long Walk — about the handicapped and the elderly being finished off by the soldiers, about pregnant women being deserted on the road so they would not delay the walk.

When the tribe reached its destination in exile, a new unpleasantness awaited them. They were forced to live together with the Apache, their eternal enemy. In the temporary camp, fights arose, and Indians died of dysentery and other diseases.

Because the experiment did not work, there was a proposal to move the Navajo another 500 kilometers (about 310 miles) to Oklahoma, which at that time was considered to be American Native territory. Finally, however, Gen. William Sherman, who was sent to Fort Summer from Washington, had mercy on the exiles and allowed them to return to their ancestors’ land. By virtue of a treaty between the Navajo and the U.S. government concluded in 1868, a reservation around Monument Valley was created. It was much smaller than the earlier Navajo hunting grounds, but it was the only chance of return. The Indians also had to promise that they would not attack settlers and that they would agree to become “civilized.”

With time the reservation was enlarged until it became the biggest American Native territory in the whole of America. Additionally, it had real autonomy. However, this is not a completely happy ending — one-third of the people died during the Long Walk and in exile.

American Natives, the Guinea Pigs

“Uranium mines are even worse than the Long Walk because we will not remove the radioactive waste within the next 100 years!” Lillie sadly points out. “We have 551 such mines on the reservation, many of them next to living spaces.”

Did the mining companies which worked on the reservation, as well as the U.S. government which bought uranium from them, know about the dangers? Were the Navajo intentionally sacrificed as cannon fodder in the Cold War? Officially speaking, Washington was not responsible for conditions in the mines because the mines were on the autonomous land of the reservation and private companies worked them (and from which the government only bought the uranium).

However, today it is known from the archives that in the early ’50s, some doctors were already warning that radon could cause cancer. But they did not have irrefutable proof because lung cancer usually attacks a dozen or so years after breathing in radon.

In an internal report from May 1952, federal medical agencies predicted just such a situation. They recommended building ventilation into the mines — turning on fans after detonation, which would blow away radon—and only then letting the miners enter the mineshafts.

The then-director of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Raw Materials, Jesse Johnson, decided however, to not reveal that alarming report. It “could adversely affect uranium production,’’ he wrote in a memorandum to his employees. “Communist propagandists may utilize any sensational statements or news reports to hamper or restrict uranium production.”

Johnson’s priority was to multiply uranium supplies, which were essential for the production of another atomic bomb. And he achieved his goal in an impressive way — extraction in the U.S. rose from 70,000 tonnes (77,162 tons) per year in 1948, to 3 million tonnes (3.3 million tons) in 1956. America became the biggest producer of uranium in the world.

As a result of the hidden report, hundreds of miners from the Navajo reservation were secretly monitored. They became the guinea pigs and in fact, after 10 odd years, they proved that radon causes cancer.

In this case, did Director Johnson brutally use the American Natives? Surely yes, although generally in the ’50s, residents near atomic research were treated with a strange contempt in the U.S., even when the victims were also white residents.

In Poland, we still worry about the Chernobyl disaster and the future effects it could have on the children irradiated in 1986. Whereas in the ’50s at the Nevada National Security Site barely 100 kilometers from Las Vegas (about 62 miles), hundreds of atomic tests were conducted on the land and in the air! They became an attraction of hotels and casinos in the northern end of the gambling capital — which advertised themselves as places from which atomic mushrooms could be seen (and in fact they were visible).

“Due to these explosions we have a third problem in Nevada. Not only miners dying of lung cancer, not only radioactive mines, but also radioactive rainfall from clouds being pushed by the wind from above the Nevada National Security Site to our reservation!” recounts Phil. “I can assure you that they knew the clouds could be harmful even from hundreds of kilometers away. They never did any tests when the wind blew towards Hollywood, where John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe lived.”

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy banned atomic tests on the land and in the air (from then on only underground tests were carried out), and a couple of years later ventilation was mandatory in the uranium mines. Of course for the miners who had previously worked on the reservation, including Phil’s father, it was too late. In 1967, in The Washington Post, an article entitled “The Hidden Victims of the Atomic Century. The Risk of Working in a Uranium Mine” was published.

In the ’70s, families of miners from the Navajo reservation created a civic committee, Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee (NURVC), which started demanding justice and compensation from the federal government. “I don’t remember how many times I went to Washington, spoke with the congressmen and the officials,” says Phil, who played a key role on the committee.

Only after a dozen or so years did they achieve victory. Congress voted for it and President George W. Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Miners who fell ill in the mines were given $100,000 in compensation (or their families received the compensation if the aggrieved had already died of cancer.) Support staff received $75,000, and the victims of radioactive ash fallout received $50,000.

Until now, 30,000 families have been awarded compensation, but Phil thinks this is definitely too low, and that is why he still goes to Washington to fight for an increase in compensation to $150,000 (for all the victims, without dividing them into miners, over-ground staff and victims of the radioactive clouds).

It’s hard not to agree with him if, for example, we compare the Navajo compensation with that which the victims of the cable railway disaster in Italy in 1998 received. An American F-16 fighter jet* damaged a cable, which at that time was supporting a hanging gondola, and 20 passengers, including two Poles, were killed. The U.S. government paid out $40 million in total to the families of the deceased, $2 million for each victim. Why then, are foreigners who accidentally died because of the U.S. Army’s fault being paid dozens of times more than the members of the Navajo tribe, who also died because of the U.S. Army’s fault, but not accidentally?

What’s worse, Phil explains, is that to get compensation, Navajos have to deal with a series of bureaucratic obstacles. You need to be ill (or dead, so that the family can claim compensation). Unfortunately, lung cancer kills very quickly, often within a couple of month from diagnosis. That’s why someone who is sick, even if he collects the money in person, can “enjoy it” only in the last weeks of his life.

Additionally, many miners do not have proof that they worked in the mines, because there are no documents. There is another problem. In the ’50s, Navajos very often got married in tribal ceremonies that were not registered anywhere. Some miners’ widows do not have any proof of being wives. They have to get the appropriate certificate in court, which in turn demands that the tribal marriage be confirmed by a couple of witnesses to that wedding. But in many cases, all the witnesses to a wedding in the ’50s are now dead. Navajos also don’t have proof that they lived in places where radioactive clouds from the Nevada National Security Site passed over. Finally, some Native Americans who smoke tobacco a few times a year, or a pipe in the tribal ceremonies, are considered to be chain smokers according to the 1990 act, and for that reason, lose the chance of getting compensation.

For many years Phil has demanded that Congress amend the act in a way that would remedy all of this. “If I achieve it, I will stop with this. I will be able to go fishing in peace,” he laughs. The compensation fight defined the meaning of his life. In the mid-1990s, before another journey to Washington, his wife warned him that if he went, she would take the baby and leave him because she did not want to live with a madman. “Nobody appreciates it, we don’t get anything from it, you don’t have a decent job, we barely make ends meet!” she inveighed. Phil went to Washington, and when he returned the house was empty. And it still is after 20 years.

Again, I Need to Leave?

Four months ago, the federal court ruled that the Kerr-McGee Corporation, which extracted uranium at the reserve in the ’50s, must pay the Navajo $1 billion in compensation. It’s the first such case. But it’s only a drop in the ocean — it will be enough to clean up a few dozen mines abandoned by Kerr-McGee.

“There are still 500 left,” says Lillie Lane, and she sends me to a gorge in the vicinity of Church Rock town, where the border of the reservation is, where people live between two abandoned uranium mines. In front of one house, next to a bed exposed to the sun because it’s full of bedbugs, former miner Peterson Bell sits on a bench. He was lucky he worked in the mine in the ’70s, when ventilation was already in place. But as a child, he was exposed to some of the radioactive waste from the Nevada National Security Site.

“I don’t have cancer yet, but all this uranium waste has poisoned my life anyway!” he says.” A couple of years ago, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency decided that we cannot live here, because the radiation is too high. They moved us to motels in town, we lived there a couple of months, and they destroyed our houses; they collected the top part of the ground and built us homes again. After that they allowed us to return, exactly like after the Long Walk; but right now, apparently there is high radiation again and we need to move to motels. F – – – it, I am not going anywhere, I want to die in my house and graze my sheep in peace!”

We, the Citizens

Despite the Long Walk, the uranium mess and all the other calamities that the Navajo have had to suffer from the “pale faces,” its members consider themselves U.S. citizens, and even American patriots. Phil Harrison served in the Army, and his grandfather belonged to the famous group of Navajo Code Talkers during the Pacific War. Because Americans were afraid that the Japanese would break their codes and would intercept commands, they were encoded not from English but from the Navajo language (which nobody in Japan knew). Navajo Code Talkers at the front and at headquarters encoded messages in their language and afterward translated them into English. They operated during the famous invasion of Iwo Jima, where the Americans and the Japanese fought one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. Today all Navajo people are proud of those Code Talkers.

I asked Phil how one can feel an emotional bond with Navajo ancestors and also with a country, which for 150 years persecuted them. “It starts in school. My colleagues from the reservation and I were sent to boarding school, that is why I was separated from my parents. Parents taught us how to be Indian and at the boarding school we absorbed the American way of life. With time the latter has prevailed. I remember when, with my colleagues, we were all Navajos, we watched western movies and — probably you will not believe it — in the scuffles between cowboys and Indians we cheered on the cowboys.” **

Information for this article came from ”A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of Navajos,” a book by Judy Pasternak.

*Editor’s Note: Following the accident, and confirmed after the official investigations, it was reported that the aircraft was actually a Marine EA-6B Prowler.

**Editor’s Note: Quoted remarks as part of the author’s interviews for this article, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

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