A huge thank you to Dr. Tommy Rock, a post-doctoral researcher at the Geosciences Department at Princeton University and member of the Navajo Nation for discussing uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation and the documentary film, The Return of Navajo Boy, for our first Good Energy Watch film club event held April 20, 2022. The documentary follows two men from the Navajo Nation on their journey to return to their native homelands after many years of separation and highlights the long lasting impacts of uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation.
Watch the event recording here.
The social, environmental, and health impacts to the Navajo Nation from uranium mining’s legacy have continued long after the last uranium mine closed. Dr. Rock spoke in detail about research that he and others conduct on water, land, and air in the Navajo Nation. According to Dr. Rock’s studies, large amounts of uranium mine waste on the Navajo Nation remain unsecured and migrate from abandoned mine sites through the wind into washes and tributaries, leading to surface and groundwater contamination. Dr. Rock is continuing to test and track potentially radioactive dust from uranium mine waste at the SkyLine mine site in Utah. Some uranium mine waste from the Navajo Nation has traveled as far as 80 miles to Sanders, Arizona. Although there are no uranium mines in the Sanders community, studies have found evidence of uranium in groundwater and unregulated water sources tested in 1986 and 1987. Livestock studies conducted by Dr. Rock and other researchers have uncovered further contamination. “When the sheep eat the shrubs in the winter due to a lack of vegetation, they eat [both] the dust and the root and ingest the uranium; there is evidence of uranium in the stomach, liver, and kidneys of the animals.” Dr. Rock says.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity:
Q. What would real justice look like in the context of uranium mining’s legacy?
A. There needs to be a lot more studies done with all Indigenous populations. The Navajo Nation is getting some attention around the pathways of uranium exposure, but other tribes need those studies conducted as well. Studies need to be conducted to understand how uranium contamination impacts traditional food and grasses grown near the abandoned mines because some of the grasses have uptake of uranium. So, more work needs to be done to identify the plants that other animals eat and look at the entire food web.
Q. Do you think there is a need to fund a comprehensive study to find abandoned mines, or do we already know about the worst mines and need to concentrate on those?
A. Some estimates of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation cite approximately 524 abandoned uranium mines. However, 1,200 abandoned uranium mines is more likely the number, and a lot are near tribal reservations. This is because when there are multiple 52uranium mines in one geographical region, they tend to be grouped together as “one mine.” The abandoned mines are not being addressed or discussed; there are currently no policies or politicians talking about it. There needs to be a conversation about the abandoned mines that still need to be addressed. New mines should not be the focus as much as addressing these old mine sites.
Q. Do you think that in-situ leach (ISL) mining is a safer way to mine uranium?
A. ISL mining is not safer. Just because it's not being seen like an open pit mine, doesn't mean it's safer. There is a concern with ISL mining in the Southwest because there are areas with faults, and it is unclear how the geological formations will play into it. So, there is a greater risk of groundwater contamination, and I have not heard of any groundwater remediation that has worked. There is not a lot of water in the Southwest, so the risks to the water are a little scarier because good water is hard to come by.
Q. Is there a way for uranium-contaminated water to get back to its original pre-contamination quality, or is the water “scarred for life?”
A. The water will be scarred for life. The closer you get to a permanent cleanup, the more it will cost, and the water will not likely return to where it was before contamination. Reverse osmosis is one way to remove the uranium in the water, but it's very expensive. It is not clear if it has been tried before to get the water back to the way it was before uranium contamination.
Q. Workers in uranium mines were not warned about the risks. Is there a way to ethically inform people of the risk involved with uranium mining?
A. There is a way to do things right and inform the community of the risks involved. Maybe showing what the remediation would look like for their area and environment, including warnings about the way the area will not be able to be used again after uranium mining. If the community agrees and accepts that risk, that's okay—as long as they consent. But the community must know the risks involved.
Q. What advice would you give a community that wants to allow new mining in their communities to minimize impacts on the environment and public health?
A. Uranium mining clean-up laws need to exist. There are none currently. There is only one law around former uranium mills, and a lot of those sites are Superfund sites at the moment, but there is very little related to uranium mining and former uranium mines. Groups like the Defenders of the Black Hills were attempting to pass legislation around uranium mine cleanup requirements; hopefully we will hear about that more soon.
Watch The Return of the Navajo Boy here.
Suggested additional readings on this topic:
● If You Poison Us, by Peter H. Eichstaedt
● Yellow Dirt, by Judy Pasternak
● "The US Nuclear Weapons Program Left ‘a Horrible Legacy’ of Environmental Destruction and Death Across the Navajo Nation," by Cheyanne M. Daniels, Inside Climate News
● "Why the Debate Over Russian Uranium Worries U.S. Tribal Nations," by Simon Romero, The New York Times
 Dixon, Earle Campbell. Hydrogeology and ground-water quality in the Sanders area, western Puerco River basin, Arizona. Diss. University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 1990.
 Webb, Robert H., Glenn R. Rink, and Dean B. Radtke. Preliminary assessment of water quality in the alluvial aquifer of the Puerco River Basin, northeastern Arizona. Vol. 87. No. 4126. Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey, 1987.
 Defenders of the Black Hills disbanded in 2016 and the Uranium Exploration and Mining Accountability Act has not had much movement since 2016. However, reform of the General Mining Law of 1872 is up for debate during the 2022-2023 legislative session, which could lead to reform in the uranium mining in the United States going forward. GEC plans to work alongside fellow advocates and educate lawmakers on this necessary mining industry reform.