Shocking legacy of 'uranium poisonings' haunts Obama's looming mining decision

Despite disturbing claims about the impact of uranium, ten-thousand proposals for exploration in the Grand Canyon area have been submitted. A key fuel for nuclear power, the US must now decide between full scale uranium mining, partial mining or a twenty year moratorium. Leana Hosia investigates

Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon it's easy to see why it's is called the crown jewels of the United States and a wonder of the world. Millions visit each year, generating some $600 million in tourism revenue. But a new wealth has been discovered here: America’s largest concentrations of high grade uranium - the fuel for nuclear power. In his energy policy President Barack Obama said 'it is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option.' 

Last year ten-thousand claims for exploration in the Grand Canyon area were submitted and the government decides next year between full scale mining, partial mining or a twenty year moratorium. 

Mineral interest is not new to Arizona.  The Spanish came in the 1500s looking for the legendary cities of gold, but found only the mud-walled homes of the indigenous people. Then in the 1800s rush Jake Snively struck gold in Arizona. Geologist Jim Rasmussen works for the uranium industry: 'I fill the niche of the old prospector with the mule, the gold pan and the hammer wandering around the desert. The difference is I drive a pick up and have more technical tools.'

On the plateau The Ecologist followed the cow tracks to the site of the old Hermit mine, which was exploited in the 1980s. Jim explained how the uranium deposits are searched for by air. The uranium in Arizona is found in breccia pipes - long vertical deposits underground which form a circular depression on the surface. Not all breccia pipes will contain uranium, but when they do the deposits are rich. At the site you couldn't tell there had ever been a mine there. But it's the invisible levels of radiation that causes concern. At some reclaimed mines, such as Kanab North, levels ten times higher than normal were found by government scientists.  

The central issue is this: in the process of mining could uranium contaminate the area and ground water? The Colorado River supplies drinking water to about 30 million people and uranium is a known toxin. The US Geological Survey (USGS) has been investigating the risks.  Geologist Jim Otton says 'there is no question that when you start mining the levels of contamination rise.'


When uranium comes into contact with oxygen it oxidises and becomes soluble in water, which increases the chance of contamination. Radioactive dust can also be blown away by the wind or washed away by rain. USGS adviser, Andrea Alpine, sums up the dilemma: 'The problem the government is facing is to try and protect the Grand Canyon, but from our estimates about 40 percent of the nation’s uranium is in this area. If mining goes ahead water sources should be monitored. In the past uranium was left on the surface. Now if you went over and picked that up that's not a danger, but if you were exposed to it day in and day out, or if it leeched into nearby ponds of water that would be bad.'

Dianna Uqualla: 'Industrial development needs to slow down if we are to survive' Photo: Leana Hosea

That bad outcome occurred on the nearby Navajo reservation. From 1944 to 1986 nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore was blasted from the canyons and plains to fuel the Cold War arms race. The Navajo were told it would provide jobs and they would be serving their country. They were not told about the dangers, it is claimed, despite apparantly known links between radioactive radon gas emitted from uranium and lung cancer.  The US government launched a Public Health Study in 1951 into radon levels and miners' health, but according to criminologist Linda Robyn from Arizona University, 'mounting evidence of the dangers of uranium and warnings from public health service physicians were ignored by mining companies and the government.' 

Many of those miners have now succumbed to cancer or other illnesses and died. Factors other than uranium could account for at least some of these illnesses but the finger of suspicion has been repeatedly pointed at uranium mining.

According to David Michaels, Head of Occupational Health and Safety in the Obama administration, the Atomic Energy Commission knew that miners on the Colorado Plateau received some of the highest doses of radon ever recorded. Linda Robyn says that 'what happened on the Navajo reservation amounts to a state-corporate crime.' 

All the companies that were operating there at the time have now ceased to exist.

But the miners were not the only ones to suffer. In the 1950s cancer rates were so low on the reservation that a medical journal published an article titled 'Cancer immunity in the Navajo'. That so called immunity no longer exists. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says 'the legacy of uranium remains, including over 500 abandoned uranium mines as well as homes and drinking water sources with elevated levels of radiation. Potential health effects include lung cancer, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function.' Piles of radioactive waste have been dumped on the reservation.


The open pits and shafts filled with rain water, which resident Milton Yazzie remembers swimming in with his friends. At the age of 50 he's been told he's not got long to live. 'It's something to do with my pancreas. The doctor said it's not something that can be cured, so I just call him doctor doom.' Milton lost his sister seven years ago to kidney cancer: 'she would have been 51 at the time and it was really painful for her. Then a month later my dad died of kidney complications. He had been a uranium miner, but he was never able to complete the medical tests to prove his illness so we never got compensation. His lungs were so bad that he couldn't breathe into the ventilator - he'd just pass out. One night he died in my arms. My older brother knew he didn't have long to go and followed him soon after. That was a real wake-up call for us that something is really wrong here.' 

The Grand Canyon - one of the world's most famous tourist destinations. But the legacy of uranium mining stalks the wilderness. Photo: Leana Hosea

Assistant professor of biology, Dr Lee Greer, from Sierra Nevada University, explained to The Ecologist how uranium poisoning occurs. 'People ingest it, breathe it into their lungs or it gets absorbed through the skin from bathing. Then it starts bombarding tissues and causes wild uncontrolled cell growth like cancer, gets into the bone marrow and leads to leukaemia. If it penetrates the reproductive tissue, like the ovaries or testicular tissue, then children can have birth defects. With ongoing chronic exposure this can be passed on from generation to generation.' 

We spent the whole day driving through desert scrub land, taking geiger counter readings that measured hot spots by the sides of the road, old mine sites and in people's homes. Because of poverty people used material from the abandoned mines to make home improvements. The EPA have started to assess uranium levels in 500 homes and schools through a five-year plan set to end in 2012. But they say the problem is so widespread it will take years to address.

State of emergency

Water is life, but to the Navajo it's begun to be associated with death. 'I would never have fed that to my children if I had known,' says Rolanda Tohannie. According to scientific studies done by the Southwest Research Information Center many of the underground springs that the Navajo have always depended on have some levels of uranium contamination caused by uranium mining and milling. The situation has reportedly become so bad that the Navajo government recently declared a public health state of emergency. 

According to the EPA 30 per cent of people here have no access to safe piped water so families like Larry and Rolanda Tohannie's still use springs suspected of being contaminated. Larry was not informed by the authorities that the water may be contaminated and only found out when he attended a meeting held by a local grassroots group called The Forgotten People. 'My wife has had thyroid cancer. She's recently had a ten pound growth coiled around her intestines taken out. Our children have cysts on their bodies.  They're big enough that the doctors don't want to remove them because they say it's going to damage the nerves around it. But the cysts are still growing.' Larry told me about other neighbours who are also suffering from cancer, including 41 year old Pauline Lefthand who I had arranged to meet. But she died the morning of our interview - from cancer.

Rolanda and Larry Tohannie outside their home on the Navajo Reservation. They are forced to rely on spring water as there's no safe piped water available for them.  Photo: Leana Hosea


Because people didn't know the causes of their illnesses they came to feel as if they were cursed. 'I always wondered what was wrong with the sheep. They were born without sex organs and they couldn't walk on their hooves, but hobbled on their ankles', says David Neztsosie. But the real horror started when his two younger sisters started to loose the feeling in their legs and their feet and hands started to curl inwards. 'They would crawl around on their knees. In the end they were bed ridden.' Doctors couldn't find a reason for these birth defects which only afflicted Navajo children. So in the 1960s, without considering any environmental factors, they declared it was a genetic disorder and named it Navajo Neuropathy.

The cause of Navajo Neuropathy is still unknown, but evidence now suggests it may be caused by pregnant women drinking uranium contaminated water.


David's mother had used an abandoned open pit mine that had filled with rain when she was pregnant with her girls. Navajo Neuropathy is not a compensable disease under the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. 'It's so hard to get compensation. The authorities knew the water was contaminated, but we are just Indians - we're like perishable food to them.' 

The question now is could contamination occur again in a new mining phase? The Ecologist visited the sole currently active uranium mine in Arizona run by Canadian company Denison Mines Corporation, near the Northern rim of the Grand Canyon.

There is no suggestion that the company is responsible for any wrongdoing or involved in, or linked to, any current or previous contamination.

Harold Roberts, Vice President of the mine, is adamant the risk are minimal for what the benefits are worth and the industry has learnt a lot over the past fifty years: 'we go to great lengths to ensure the safety of our employees.' 

Large fans pump clean air into the mine and suck out most of the poisonous radon gas. However, when I went down into the mine, none of the miners appeared to be wearing masks and had uranium ore all over their hands and faces. 'It washes off,' said 28 year old Cody Behuden, licking his ore caked lips. When I put it to Harold Roberts that miners may be ingesting uranium, he insisted there was no danger in that and pointed out that the mine was watered to minimise dust and prevent it being breathed into the lungs. The miners didn't seem too worried about the toxicity of uranium. 

Mining foreman Dustin Nielson took a radiological reading of the ore, which told him the uranium concentration was high. 'When it's like this and it probes 2 per cent, it makes you want to take your clothes off and wallow around it in!'

Safety net

Harold Roberts, Executive Vice President US Operations for Denison Mines (USA) Corp. Photo: Leana Hosea

Back on the surface Harold Roberts assured me that when accidents have happened in the past they are cleaned up swiftly and effectively. Once the ore is mined it's trucked to the milling site in Utah, where the uranium is extracted with acid. The product is yellow cake and this is what is used in nuclear fuel rods. The by-product, called tailings, is 80 per cent more radioactive than yellow cake. Thousands of tons are buried in containers lined with 60mm of plastic with drainage layers. Regulations dictate the company must design the facility to last not less than two-hundred years. If Denison Mines doesn't last that long Mr Roberts says the company is bonded, so the government has some money as a safety net.

Employment in the depressed US economy is a hot topic and Roberts is keen to point out that the mine employs 30 miners with a further ten employed in ore transportation. The life of a mine is about five to eight years and he hopes to have several mines operating in sequential development. The previous uranium boom ended when the bottom fell out of the uranium market in the early 1980s, partly due to American public opinion turning against nuclear power because of a major accident at Three Mile Island nuclear plant. Mining towns were left depressed and some locals are keen for the work.

But the mine is not welcomed by all locals. Carletta Toulousi and Dianna Uqualla are members of the Havasupai tribe, who have always lived in the and around the Grand Canyon. 'The Havasupai and other Native American tribes consider the Grand Canyon a sacred area and we are trying to protect it,' Dianna Uqualla says. 'We need to slow down our industrial development if we are going to survive, not furiously try to maintain our current way of life ignoring all the costs.'

The current mines are on federal lands and not on the reservation. But Carletta Tilousi argues: 'my people live on the bottom of the Grand Canyon and our water source comes from the rim. Mining companies are pursuing uranium for their own profit, but the only benefit that we are going to get is a source of contamination that will not be possible to clean up. We are concerned about the future of our children, that's why we fight this.'

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