Radioactive Justice


Lately I've been trying to keep up with the debate about uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region. I'm sorry to admit that like many people I'm not well-versed in the physical properties of uranium or radioactivity in general, so my first impulse when approaching this subject is a sort of vague, knee-jerk fear. As a humanist, my

education regarding this subject has been formed mostly by narrative writings such as Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge and Ed Abbey's essay "Rocks" in Desert Solitaire, neither of which present a rosy view of the consequences of the nuclear age. Still, one should expand one's knowledge of these things in light of the ongoing energy crisis, as Jen Jackson and Caitlin Sislin noted in their posts to the "Just West" blog earlier this summer. Both pieces sparked some lively comments regarding the safety of mining and of nuclear fusion; one commenter suggested that the recently released USGS environmental impact statement [pdf]  would put to rest the sort of uninformed paranoia held by folks like me.

Well, I've been diligently slogging through the statement (after waiting nearly an hour for it to download), and so far I'm not especially reassured. Since I teach a course on environmental rhetoric I make a habit of reading EISs, and find them excellent at reporting but not so useful at contributing to decision-making by citizens. As M. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline Palmer argue in their important 1992 book Ecospeak, the EIS is a document by government folks for government folks, despite the somewhat broader, more democratic goals for it envisioned by the framers of NEPA  (the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.)  Though the EIS has taught me some interesting things about the geologic features and locations of breccia pipe formations, I'm still unsure about how I should feel regarding mining contracts near the canyon rims and watersheds. I'm trying to consider the big picture, but I can't help wondering whether the inadvertent swim I took in House Rock rapid a few years back will contribute to a tumor a few years hence. For whom should I vote regarding these issues? Does anyone have a handle on them?

Maybe all the data and charts in the EIS will eventually reassure me but for now I'm still a little spooked. From my place in Southeastern Utah, I can see and hear a small uranium mine off in the distance. My neighbor who told me what it was, did so in a very matter-of-fact way. In her blog post, Jackson eloquently recounts the still-developing, deadly effects of nearby Monticello, Utah's former uranium mill tailings; my neighbor has lived that story. To her, uranium is an inescapable part of the landscape. Four Corners residents have lived with it all their lives, absorbing both the economic benefits and the medical costs. For me, a part-time resident and newcomer from the big city, this is a culture shock. Just as they are likely horrified at the crime and pollution in my suburban neighborhood, I can't imagine watching dozens of friends and loved ones die from the effects of simply living near a pile of tailings.

I respect and regret the sacrifices of residents of Four Corners (and other areas in the West) who have been test cases for U.S. nuclear ambitions. Increased uranium extraction will no doubt provide jobs and an economic boost to the area, and, if its proponents have their way, nuclear power will contribute to reduced reliance on imported fossil fuels. Perhaps the whole business is indeed safer these days than it was back in the "boom years" of the 1950s and 60s. Maybe eventually the oddly dryer-like sound of the mine will fade into the background for me, as it has for my Utah neighbor. However, I hope decisions about these weighty issues aren't based solely on 350 page government documents and expert testimony before dozing Washington committees. We all share the responsibility of listening both to the science and to the narratives. Real environmental justice demands it.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

Photo of the Uranium Building in Moab, Utah, courtesy of Flickr user JoseJose