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for people who care about the West

A contaminated history unearthed

 

Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed
Judy Pasternak
336 pages, hardcover: $26.
Free Press, 2010.

In 2006, the L.A. Times ran an exposé by reporter Judy Pasternak on the effects of uranium mining in the Navajo homeland. The articles had a remarkable impact, inspiring congressional hearings and Superfund cleanups. But Pasternak wasn't finished. Since then, she has crisscrossed the Navajo Reservation collecting miners' stories, dined with uranium industry bigwigs, and dug patiently through federal archives. The result is Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, the first comprehensive telling of an ongoing tragedy.

While journalistic at its core, Yellow Dirt has the flavor of an old Western novel, braiding the stories of a Navajo sheepherder named Adakai with those of the "wily trader" Harry Goulding and the "one-man corporation" Denny Viles, of the VCA mining company. Viles seeks strange, yellow-streaked rocks; Goulding, through questionable dealings, tempts Adakai's son into "breaking his decades of silence to speak at last about the leetso -- the yellow dirt -- that he possessed." As the story of Adakai's family unfolds through the generations, the Old West flavor gives way to a modern world of legal intrigue and a granddaughter's stubborn resistance.

The backdrop to this saga is darker still. By 1942, "though the tribal government didn't know it and certainly was not paid for it, Navajo ore was contributing uranium to a mighty effort that would change the world": The Manhattan Project had begun to build atom bombs. As the Cold War unfolded, the U.S. government's hunger for uranium was such that companies felt no pressure to meet safety standards. As a result, miners were exposed to massive levels of radiation. According to Pasternak, "The Navajo uranium miners averaged cumulative exposures that were about forty-four times higher than the levels at Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

In the years since, exposure to mine residues and persistent contamination of drinking water as well as of homes -- many built using radioactive mine waste -- continue to devastate Navajo families with high rates of cancer and kidney disease. Perhaps most disturbing is evidence of a birth defect called Navajo neuropathy, which causes muscle weakness and nerve injuries. Its victims seldom survive past the age of 10.

In all, Yellow Dirt is a highly readable, detailed account of the too-often skewed relationship between industry, government and citizens. And the story isn't over. As memories of the excesses of the Atomic Age dim, burgeoning enthusiasm for alternative energy has reawakened the U.S.'s yen for uranium, and bolstered prices accordingly. Today, federal agencies, disregarding an explicit Navajo Nation ban, are licensing new uranium mines in Navajo country. The release of Yellow Dirt could not be more timely.