The Toxic Legacy of Unremediated Uranium Mines

The Toxic Legacy of Unremediated Uranium Mines

An analysis of Leslie Macmillan's article on the crisis of the Cameron uranium mine.

Joshua Lott for the New York Times
28

Within the United States, the threat to indigenous peoples--specifically, to resources and land essential to their existence--is not a new one. The Dakota Access Pipeline is perhaps the most widely-known invasion of Native American sovereignty, particularly as this sovereignty relates to environmental protection, but unremediated uranium mines continue to pose massive toxicological risks to nearby (predominantly indigenous) communities.

Background:

The central source of this piece is Leslie Macmillan’s article, published in March of 2012 by the New York Times and titled “Uranium Mines Still Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous.” Macmillan completed her undergraduate studies at Boston University’s College of Communications, then obtained her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Harvard[1]; she currently works as a freelance writer. Her contributions to the New York Times are part of the publication’s “Green Blog: Energy, the Environment and the Bottom Line.”[2] The intended audience for this particular piece most likely falls within the general demographics of the New York Time’s readership which, according to the Pew Research Center; thus its readers were/are probably under 55, fairly affluent, college-educated, and self-proclaimed Democrats/liberals.[3]

Through this author’s extensive work in the intersection of environmentally-problematic events and indigenous culture, she can be inferred to have a depth of knowledge in the issues surrounding this intersection—social, political, anthropologic, economic, etc. In the author’s apparent lack of background in scientific research, her statements regarding scientific conclusions may warrant additional verification from sources focused on experimentation/objective facts (as opposed to Macmillan’s synthesis of data with narratives). The fact that Macmillan’s article was published in a daily newspaper (as opposed to a scholarly journal) and did not undergo peer review also warrants a greater degree of skepticism.

In understanding the context in which this article was published, there is a range of relevant facets to consider, including historical treatment of indigenous peoples by the American government, the capitalist nature of the nuclear weapons industry, the still-limited knowledge regarding radioactive substances, and the agenda of the author/publication company.

The United States’ federal government has actively worked to assert and protect the predominantly-European/Caucasian majority since its inception as a governing body; in doing so, it forcibly displaced, culled, and subjugated the Native American population[4]. Advances in Native rights do not wholly discount the possibility of continued efforts of control and oppression—either by active policy decisions (such as approving pipelines that run over ground sacred to indigenous peoples) or by omission (such as not directing funds towards issues that predominantly affect Native Americans).

Further complicating the interplay of federal government and tribal functioning/autonomy is the interplay of the federal government with global politics and with the free market. After World War II, tensions with the Soviet Union prompted the nuclear arms race, which in turn created a demand for a system of uranium extraction/refinement, weapons manufacturing, and weapons testing. In the United States, this demand was met by a supply of for-profit mining and production corporations but was not met with an adequate supply of impartial research and dissemination of findings. The Atomic Energy Commission(AEC)—a civilian entity theoretically created to distance federal power from the overseeing of radically-potent weapon technology—did not operate outside of the coercive pressures of the federal government. As such, the supposedly “objective” information gathered and disseminated by the AEC did not function to provide comprehensive, impartial information to the public; it functioned to maintain enough fear of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal to continue nuclear development by the United States, but not enough fear to cause excessive questioning of the developmental process or to generate panic.[5] Needless to say, an incomplete exploration into the specifics of radioactivity’s effect on the human body and on the environment shapes the historical/scientific context of the article.

Along with these complex influences on historical context, Macmillan’s agenda in writing and the New York Times’ in publishing the article of is also a necessary inclusion in the dialogue of this article’s significance. Publication companies pay their writers, and the public purchases (directly or indirectly) the products of these companies; thus readers must consider the effects of profit, capitalism, and consumption culture while obtaining information from sources such as the New York Times.

Document Analysis:

The content of Macmillan’s article provides insight into numerous issues, including modern relations between the federal government and Native peoples, and the continuing environmental impact of the production of nuclear weapons in the United States.

The article evidences federal inaction/apathy towards crises befalling Native Americans from external sources by highlighting the timeframe in which federal response to these crises occurs. For instance, Macmillan reports that it was “a few months”[6] between a Navajo rancher’s discovery of the abandoned mine in Cameron, Arizona, and Environmental Protection Agency workers coming to investigate the site. She further notes that the EPA “filed a report on the rancher’s mine [in 2011] and pledged to continue its environmental review,”[7] but apparently failed to do so, stating that well into 2012, “there are still no warning signs or fencing around the secluded and decaying site.”8 If the initial visit by the EPA had found minimal toxicity at the abandoned mine, perhaps its inaction would be more palatable. However, Macmillan notes that “radioactivity levels exceeded Geiger counters’ scale,”9 and that, at such levels, “[t]wo days of exposure at the Cameron site would expose a person to more external radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers safe for an entire year.”10 The scope of the environmental/health crisis of the lack of remediation of the Cameron mine makes the statement that it “joins the list of hundreds of such sites identified across the 27,000 square miles of Navajo territory”11 even more accusatory of federal inaction to such crises. Macmillan identifies the resulting frustration and anguish of the Navajo, saying that, “For some Navajos, the uranium contamination is all of a piece with their fraught relationship with the federal government… the Navajo Nation…has not gotten similar treatment [as other non-Native portions of the United States such as the Grand Canyon] from the federal government for its land.”12 Thus the article provides insight into the dysfunctional relationship between tribal and federal governments, and how the latter fails to provide sufficient aid to the former.

In the aforementioned statement regarding the Cameron mine’s current radioactivity and the existence of hundreds of other similar sites, Macmillan also sheds light on the environmental impact of the abandoned mines. Her statements provide a framework of comprehending the magnitude and omnipresence of radioactivity, qualified with an idea of the harms exposure to such radioactivity can cause: “uranium and its decay products, like radon and radium…are known to cause health problems, including bone, liver, breast and lung cancer.”13

Document Impact:

Macmillan’s article prompted a Congressional response, in which seven House Democrats called “for ‘urgent action’ to clean up hundreds of abandoned uranium mines that pose extreme public health risks to residents of the Navajo Nation Reservation, in letters Thursday to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE) and Indian Health Service (IHS).”14 The EPA formulated a plan (stated as the 2014-2018 Plan) in conjunction with the Navajo Nation to address “the legacy of uranium mining,” whose major objectives are to “[r]emediate homes, [f]ocus on 43 priority mines located near homes, [t]reat groundwater at mill sites, [c]onduct health studies, [and e]xpand interagency outreach.”15



[1] “Leslie Macmillan,” LinkedIn, accessed February 11, 2017, https://www.linkedin.com/in/leslie-macmillan-666b3...

[2] “About>Leslie Macmillan,” Leslie Macmillan, accessed February 11, 2017, http://www.leslie-macmillan.com/About.html

Audience Profiles: Who Actually Reads The New York Times, Watches Fox News, And Other Publications And Channels? IB times, nov 1, 2013 accessed Feb 11, 2017

http://www.ibtimes.com/audiences-profiles-who-actu...

[4] Fox, Sarah Alisabeth. Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West. University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

[5] Fox, Sarah Alisabeth.

[6] Macmillan, Leslie. "Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous." The New York Times. March 31, 2012. Accessed February 11, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/us/uranium-mines-dot-navajo-land-neglected-and-still-perilous.html.

[7]-12 Macmillan, Leslie.

13 Macmillan, Leslie.

14 "House Democrats Call for Action Cleaning Abandoned Uranium Mines on Navajo Nation Land | The House Committee on Natural Resources - Democrats." Press Release | Press Releases | Media | The House Committee on Natural Resources - Democrats. Accessed February 11, 2017. https://democrats-naturalresources.house.gov/media/press-releases/house-democrats-call-for-action-cleaning-abandoned-uranium-mines-on-navajo-nation-land.

15 "Five-Year Plan to Address Impacts of Uranium Contamination." EPA. February 13, 2017. Accessed February 11, 2017. https://www.epa.gov/navajo-nation-uranium-cleanup/five-year-plan-address-impacts-uranium-contamination.

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