If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans

 By Peter H. Eichstaedt

Santa Fe, New Mexico: Red Crane Books, 1994

 263 pages, $19.95

Tthe nuclear arms race was fueled, literally, by uranium. From the creation of the first atomic bomb until 1980, much of the U.S. supply was mined on the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area of the U.S. Southwest.

Approximately 15,000 people, about one-quarter of them Native Americans, worked for the United States Vanadium Corporation, a subsidiary of Union Carbide, Kerr-McGee and other mining companies in the area’s mines and mills. Relying heavily on interviews with surviving Native American former miners, If You Poison Us compellingly documents the tragedy that uranium extraction brought to the Navajo.

As early as 1949, public health experts expressed concern about the effects of radiation exposure on the miners, who worked in poorly ventilated mines, and mill workers, who described coming home from their jobs covered with concentrated uranium oxide, known as yellowcake. Over time, scientific understanding of the harmful health effects grew, but, Eichstaedt explains, “while the mine operators and government officials were well informed about the health hazards that workers in the mines and mills were exposed to daily, the miners were kept in the dark.”

Gradually, the federal government established safety regulations for the mines, but it was too little, too late.

The delays in implementing adequate safety regulations stemmed both from the national security state’s desire to get uranium at any cost (and the understanding that a high proportion of those paying the price were Native American) and from the mining companies’ interest in making sure they could extract and mill uranium at the cheapest possible cost.

The mining companies actively torpedoed efforts to adopt reasonable regulations. The extraordinary nature of their opposition is illustrated by the 1967 testimony of Richard Bokum, president of Bokum Corporation, which accounted for 25 percent of U.S. uranium production at the time, to Congress on the issue of mine safety. He told a congressional committee: “I could make a case, if I wanted to be facetious, where the miners’ health was improved by working underground and being subject to radon daughter products. There are some areas in this chart where it shows that the expected number of cases of lung cancer should be so many and the people working in the mines have zero cases.”

As he no doubt knew, Bokum’s scientific claims were dead wrong. Exposed to radiation levels sometimes thousands of times higher than recommended at the time, the miners and mill workers contracted cancers and an array of workplace-related illnesses at an alarmingly high rate. Surviving miners describe co-worker after co-worker who died from uranium-related diseases.

As the regional uranium industry phased itself out, the Navajos’ struggle was reduced to demanding compensation from the federal government for its complicity in the terrible wrongs done to them. A federal court dismissed a suit filed on behalf of the Navajo by Stewart Udall, former U.S. secretary of the interior and Arizona member of Congress, on the grounds that the government’s action in procuring the uranium and keeping its knowledge of mining hazards secret was a “discretionary function” and therefore exempt from suit under federal law. After the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the case, Navajo leaders redirected their efforts to Congress.

Ultimately, over the opposition of the Bush administration and after having refused to take action for decades, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which established a $100 million trust fund to be administered by the Justice Department. Navajo and white miners who had worked in the mines, or their families if they had died, were eligible for awards of $100,000; the fund also made available awards of $50,000 to people who lived downwind of atmospheric nuclear testing. At the urging of Republican senators from Western states, Bush signed the bill.

The bill included a formal apology to the miners and their families. It marked only the second time Congress had actually apologized for past actions; the other apology was issued to Japanese-Americans imprisoned in the United States during World War II.

For a variety of reasons, securing compensation under RECA turned out to be difficult for the Navajos; not least of those reasons was the Justice Department’s delay and obstruction. In December 1993, Udall sent an open letter to the Justice Department, in which he blasted the Department for attending to white miners’ claims twice as fast as Navajo ones. The Justice Department denied exhibiting any bigotry, but has since sped up its processing of Navajo claims.

Navajo lands remain pock-marked with hundreds of abandoned mines and pits which contain uranium wastes. The Department of Energy has cleaned up a few of the most contaminated sites, but the rest have been left to a diligent but drastically underfunded Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Office. Many of the abandoned mines have been used by local people for shelter during bad weather; children play in or near others; and wildlife have used hundreds for shelter. Even where mines are filled in or waste-rock piles are “stabilized” with as much as seven feet of clay, rock and gravel, the reclamation efforts have virtually no chance of outlasting the radioactivity of the material they are trying to cover — “eventually, the tailings will be washed into the river, even if it takes hundreds of years, and distributed along the course of the riverbed,” Eichstaedt sadly concludes.

The Uses of Haiti

By Paul Farmer

Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1994

 432 pages; $14.95

The Uses of Haiti is really two books. The first is a history of Haiti and its people, written accessibly and conversationally, from their struggle for independence from the French in the early 1800s to their struggle in 1993 for independence from the Haitian military and elite and from U.S. economic and cultural domination. The second book is about the lives of three Haitians, and how abstract forces manifest themselves in the everyday existence of average Haitians.

While The Uses of Haiti was written before the U.S. military intervention, it remains extraordinarily valuable as a window into Haitian realities, and as a critique of conventional U.S. depictions of Haitian realities.

Yolande Jean and her husband were activists in the popular movement that swept Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power; both were heavily involved in adult literacy programs. After the 1991 military coup which ousted Aristide, they were subject to repeated threats and eventually were jailed. On her second day in prison, after having been tortured by the police, Jean, who entered police custody visibly pregnant, miscarried. After her release, she decided she would have to flee the country.

Jean soon boarded one of the makeshift ships that set sail for Miami. The U.S. Coast Guard picked up the ship, and then burned not only the ship, but all of the refugees’ personal effects.

Jean’s ship was picked up before the Bush administration adopted the policy of returning all escaping refugees to Haiti, so she and the other refugees were transported to Guantanamo. Although the Bush (and later the Clinton) administration routinely denied political refugee status to qualified Haitians, Jean’s case was airtight. But Jean tested positive for HIV, so she was denied entrance into the United States even though she qualified for asylum.

At Guantanamo, Jean and others who tested positive for HIV were treated as prisoners, beaten when they held demonstrations, served food with maggots in it and given atrocious medical care.

Eventually, under court order, the Clinton administration closed what a judge described as “the only known refugee camp in the world composed entirely of HIV-positive refugees.” Jean was then permitted to enter the United States.

Chouchou Louis grew up in a small rural village. While he greeted Aristide’s election with great joy, he was not an activist — he was just a farmer and churchgoer. One month after the coup, while riding on a truck to a larger town, Louis, without mentioning Aristide or the military, complained to his fellow passengers about the conditions of the roads; this was understood as a veiled condemnation of the coup.

When the truck stopped at a military checkpoint, one of the passengers, who turned out to be an out-of-uniform soldier, had Louis seized. Soldiers began beating Louis in front of the passengers, and they continued beating him as they brought him into the military barracks. After several days of torture, he was released.

But, as Farmer notes, “perhaps the worst after-effect of episodes of brutality is that, in general, they mark the beginning of persecution, not the end.” Within months, Louis was arrested again, on trumped up charges of stealing bananas. He was beaten to death.

When she died in 1992, Acéphie Joseph was 27. She had lived a hard, but typical life. Her family had farmed a fertile tract of land, but was forced to move after a U.S.-funded dam flooded the valley where they lived and farmed. They moved to a less fertile area and eked out a difficult existence, frequently going hungry. Caught in the poverty of her surroundings, Joseph responded to the entreaties of a soldier, a salaried man. He turned out to have AIDS, and she contracted HIV from their brief sexual partnership.

At 22, Joseph moved to Port-au-Prince, where she worked as a maid. She developed a long-term relationship with a man, and became pregnant. After she became pregnant, however, the man left her and her employer dismissed her — having a pregnant servant is unseemly.

Joseph returned to her home village, where she gave birth. Soon after, she died of an AIDS-related illness.

Joseph’s death was not just a personal, localized tragedy, Farmer emphasizes. “AIDS in Haiti fits neatly into an established political and economic crisis. Patterns of risk and disease distribution, social responses to illness, and prospectives for the future are all illuminated by a mode of analysis that links the ethnographically-observed detail to historically-given structures.” n