On Sunday, I had the opportunity to go for a walk with my friend Jeff who lives on the Navajo Reservation. His home, an Airstream parked across from the Cameron Trading Post, sits near the Little Colorado River in Cameron, Arizona. So that's where we hiked: into the drainage and then up a small canyon passing bright red sandstone cliffs discolored here and there by chartreuse traces of uranium.
From the 1940's to the 1980's mining companies such as Union Carbide and many smaller ones blasted away at Navajo land, laying bare hundreds of uranium mines and exposing thousands of workers to dangerous levels of radiation. When the cold war cooled off, those mines were abandoned by their owners. But though the mine's might be closed, their radioactive legacy lives on.
So far, the Environmental Protection Agency has evaluated 683 abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation. One of them, somewhere near where Jeff and I walked, emits a radiation dose of one million counts per minute - a level scientists say is a direct pathway to malignant tumors. Yet that site, identified in 2010 by a cattle rancher, has not been cleaned up. In fact, as of last March it was not fenced off or even marked with a warning sign (New York Times 3/31/12, Uranium Mines Dot Navaho Land, Leslie MacMillan). Instead, tell-tale signs of visitors are present. Empty beer cans, liquor bottles, and dung left by the Diné (Navajo's) cattle.
The EPA says the reason clean up has been so slow (only 34 structures and 12 residential yards have been selected for remediation) has to do with money. There is not enough of it. And because most of the mining companies that made this toxic mess are long gone, it is we, the taxpayers that must foot the bill. Which, of course, we should do. To see this land is to see the indifference of America, it's callous, self-serving, greed-infected side. The side that treats people like cogs in a machine, and treats machines as if it were gods. In the Navajo situation, the machine was the cold-war's military industrial complex. We needed uranium for bombs, and we, the US Government, "were willing to do anything to get it," according to LA Times Reporter Judy Pasternak in her important work Yellow Dirt.
What is left is a land pock-marked by an insidious toxin. Yellow dirt has been found in concrete on the Navajo nation. Homes have been built next to the mines, many homes built out of uranium slag and dust. The wind is strong on the reservation. There are no trees to block it, and vegetation is sparse. Meaning, that when those winds pick up, they pick up uranium dust along with them, depositing it later on rivers and streams and houses and cars and toys and food and little babies hands and feet. It lands on lips which must be licked because the air is so dry.
Of course it may be argued that the Navajo's should clean up this mess. It's there land, their people, why not? Again, money is the issue. The EPA estimates clean up would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But there's more. There's the lethargy that comes from poverty and neglect. The inertia and distrust that comes from being disregarded and mistreated. And the hopelessness that comes from knowing you are surrounded by an enemy you can not see.
The wind was blowing on Sunday as Jeff and I walk across the Navajo land, and we reassured ourselves it was blowing away from us. We were upwind. But of course the wind at our backs did come from somewhere. It always does.
For more essays from Naseem Rakha go to GrandCanyonWriter.com