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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...