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Heavy illness price paid by indigenous people in uranium mining

A few decades after uranium mining began in the Navajo Nation, increased numbers of cancer cases, lung cancer in particular, began to show up in the miners. A 2008 literature review  in New Mexico found that the “Risk of lung cancer among male Navajo uranium miners was 28 times higher than in Navajo men who never mined, and two-thirds of all new lung cancer cases in Navajo men between 1969 and 1993 was attributable to a single exposure — underground uranium mining. Through 1990, death rates among Navajo uranium miners were 3.3 times greater than the U.S. average for lung cancer and 2.5 times greater for pneumoconioses and silicosis.”

NavajoAmerica’s “Secret Fukushima”: Uranium Mining is Poisoning the Bread Basket of the World By Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese Global Research, June 07, 2013 Truthout 
“……..Thousands of open uranium mines excavated beginning in the 1950s continues to release radiation today.  There have been inadequate measurements but the limited measures done show ongoing leaks larger than Fukushima. How did we get here?

It is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of uranium in the US is located on tribal land, particularly in the lands of the Navajo and Great Sioux Nations. After WWII, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created so that the US could obtain uranium for weapons production domestically. The AEC guaranteed that it would purchase all uranium that was mined. A uranium boom ensued. Private corporations jumped in and, in areas of South Dakota, individuals started mining for uranium on their private lands unaware of the dangers.

Private corporations set up thousands of underground and open pit uranium mines on tribal lands and hired local native Indians at low wages. Other than jobs, the uranium mines brought little benefit to these nations because the lands were given to non-Indian companies such as Kerr-McGee, Atlantic Richfield, Exxon and Mobil. Native Indians had little control over what took place.

Two Acts in the 19th century took the rights of self-determination away from the native population. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 allocated money to move Indians onto reservations, ostensibly to protect them from white settlers, but more likely to give settlers access to natural resources. The reservations are also known as prisoner of war camps. In fact, the reservation in Pine Ridge, SD is registered as POW Camp 344.

A second Indian Appropriations Act in 1871 changed the legal status of native Indians to wards of the Federal government, stripping them of recognition as sovereign nations and the right to make treaties. In order to make contracts for uranium mining on tribal lands, the Bureau of Indian Affairs created Tribal Councils to conduct negotiations. But the resulting contracts were not made in the best interests of the tribes.

The native Indians who worked in these mines were not protected from exposure to radiation, nor were they adequately warned about the dangers. Though it was clear that radiation exposure was linked to cancer in the early 1950s, around the same time that the US Public Health Service also started studying the health of uranium miners, it was not until 1959 that lung cancer was mentioned as a risk in pamphlets given to the workers.  In an unpublished doctoral dissertation, A.B. Hungate writes that the reasons for this are: “The government had two interests.  First, it needed a steady supply of domestic uranium, and it felt that warning the workers of the hazards would result in the loss of the workforce.  Secondly, it wanted an epidemiological testing program to study the long term health effects of radiation.”

Don Yellowman, president of the Forgotten Navajo People, described the extent of exposure to radiation and toxic metals. Native Indian miners would drink radioactive water that had contained heavy metals, dripping off of the walls deep in the mines. Some of the miners had to travel long distances to the mines, so their families would come with them. Children would play in the area around the mine and family members would prepare and eat meals there. Other reports state that workers, primarily non-whites, were ordered into the mines shortly after explosions were set off to gather up rocks and bring them out for processing. Also, miners would go home at night covered in toxic radioactive dust, exposing their families to health risks.

Uranium mining started in South Dakota on land included in the original treaties with the Great Sioux Nation in the 1960 and 70s. The Sioux were not included in negotiations for the mining and are still refusing to settle with the US government over land in the Black Hills that was mined. During the boom, the land was mined without regard for contamination as “large mining companies [were literally] pushing off the tops of bluffs and buttes.”

A few decades after uranium mining began in the Navajo Nation, increased numbers of cancer cases, lung cancer in particular, began to show up in the miners. A 2008 literature review  in New Mexico found that the “Risk of lung cancer among male Navajo uranium miners was 28 times higher than in Navajo men who never mined, and two-thirds of all new lung cancer cases in Navajo men between 1969 and 1993 was attributable to a single exposure — underground uranium mining. Through 1990, death rates among Navajo uranium miners were 3.3 times greater than the U.S. average for lung cancer and 2.5 times greater for pneumoconioses and silicosis.”
Though the health effects of radiation exposure were known, it took decades before steps were taken to protect workers. The mines were operated under lax laws established in the 1872 Mining Act. Health and safety regulation of the mines, such as requirements for ventilation, was not passed in Congress until the late 1960s. But even once they were law, the regulations were not enforced.

Beginning in the 1970s, miners and their families began to pursue legal solutions through the courts and Congress so they could be compensated for the effects of their radiation exposure. Many court cases failed and native Indians were excluded from hearings in Congress on the miner safety. Finally, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) passed Congress in 1990.

RECA is desperately inadequate and restrictive. Until 2000, RECA only covered miners, not mill workers, and it does not cover families and others who lived near the mines. It also requires a very strict application process which is impossible for some to complete. A summary of RECA by academics Brugge and Goble states: ” We believe that it is not possible to simultaneously apologize, set highly stringent criteria, and place the burden of proof on the victims, as did the 1990 RECA…………”http://www.globalresearch.ca/americas-secret-fukushima-is-poisoning-the-bread-basket-of-the-world/5338136

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June 8, 2013 - Posted by | indigenous issues, Reference, USA

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