Uranium Mining in the Southwest in Navajo Nation, USA

As of 2005, the Navajo Nation has banned uranium mining on their land. However, due to the large supply of uranium under the Navajo Reservation companies have been trying to re-open mines. Liabilities remain.


The lands of the Navajo Nation include 27,000 square miles spread over three states, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The geology of these lands makes them rich in uranium, a radioactive ore in demand after the development of atomic power and weapons at the close of World War II. From 1944 to 1986, nearly four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. Many Navajo people worked the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity to the mines and mills. Today the mines are closed, but a legacy of uranium contamination remains, including over 500 abandoned uranium mines (AUMs) as well as homes and drinking water sources with elevated levels of radiation. Potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water (U.S EPA). The Navajo people, due to a language barrier and limited education, were largely isolated from the flow of knowledge about radiation and its hazards [1]. Mobilization began in reaction to several mill spills and continuing health effects from mine tailings. While there was resistance, those being affected were not listened to and did not have adequate resources to create a large opposition. As journalist Judy Pasternak recounts, a few outstanding individuals - among them Navajo schoolteacher Lorissa Jackson, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, his son Tom (now Sen. Udall, D-N.M.), and U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman - helped raise awareness and made a stand against one of the grossest cases of betrayal and willful oversight in the history of the country.  Another voice in the fight against this injustice was Harry Tome, a tribal council member and later employee of the minerals department of the tribe, was one of those who noticed the problem in the early 1960s. In 1973, Tome prompted the Albuquerque Tribune to run a cover story that led to the first legislation in the U.S. Congress aimed at compensation focused on benefits for uranium miners. The bill never passed but in 1978, Tome began working with Udall who filed two lawsuits in 1979 seeking damages for uranium miners [1].

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Basic Data
NameUranium Mining in the Southwest in Navajo Nation, USA
CountryUnited States of America
ProvinceNew Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado
SiteNavajo Native American Reservation
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Nuclear
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Uranium extraction
Specific CommoditiesLand
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsTo date, 4 million tons of uranium ore has been extracted, however 70 million tons remain under the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation still have over 1,000 abandoned mines that continue to produce land and water contamination.

A 1979 spill at Church Rock dumped 94 million gallons of mill process effluent and 1,100 tons of tailings that contaminated the Puerco River.

An estimated 10 000 workers were employed in uranium mining, and about a quarter of them were Navajo. About 40% (3975) have applied for compensation as of March 21, 2001.

The Hydro Resources, Inc (HRI) in-situ mining operation would contaminate the pristine aquifer which supplies drinking water to more than 10,000 – 15,000 Navajo citizens.
Project Area (in hectares)7,000,000
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population200,000-250,000
Start Date1944
Company Names or State EnterprisesKerr-McGee Corp. from United States of America - The company is mining under U.S government contracts
Vanadium Corporation of America from Canada - Among principal owners of mines
Union Carbide Corporation from United States of America - Employed many Native Americans during the Cold War
Hydro Resources, Inc (HRI) from United States of America - Proposed in-situ leaching operations in Navajo Nation
Relevant government actorsUnited States Congress, United States Environmental Protection Agency, State governments (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado), Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC)
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersForgotten People (http://forgottennavajopeople.org/), Eastern Dine Navajo Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM: https://www.facebook.com/ENDAUM/) , Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC http://www.sric.org/uranium/), New Mexico Environmental Law Center
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingIndigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of MobilizationCommunity-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Mine tailing spills
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Accidents, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Other Health impacts
OtherAccording to the EPA, potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/sense of place, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCompensation
Negotiated alternative solution
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.No, the effects of decades of mining have caused significant health effects as well as poverty and loss of cultural/traditional land. The threat of uranium mining continues despite actions by the Navajo Nation to protect their land and people from the effects of uranium mining.
Sources and Materials

Valerie Kuletz, The Tainted Desert: Environmental and Social Ruin in the American West, Routledge, 1998

Judy Pasternak, Yellow Dirt. A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos, Simon and Schuster. ("This investigative feat tells the shocking, heartbreaking story of uranium mining on the Navajo reservation and its terrible legacy of sickness and government neglect, documenting one of the darker chapters in 20th century American history").

[2] Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
[click to view]

[1] The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People by Doug Brugge, PhD, MS and Rob Goble, PhD; Am J Public Health. 2002 September; 92(9): 1410–1419
[click to view]

[3] WISE Uranium Project: Compensation of Navajo Uranium Miners
[click to view]

[4] EPA: Working with Communities on Cleaning Up Abandoned Uranium Mines
[click to view]

[5] Blowing in the Wind: The Navajo Nation and Uranium; Jovana J. Brown, PhD and Lori Lambert, PhD, DS, RN, (2010), The Evergreen State College.
[click to view]

[7] New Mexico Environmental Law document: Notice of Discharge Permit 558 Termination
[click to view]

[6] Earthworks: Poisoned once, uranium mining threatens the Navajo again
[click to view]


Forgotten Navajo People
[click to view]

"Uranium Mining in the Navajo Nation after Hydro Resources, Inc."
[click to view]

Abandoned Uranium Mines: An "Overwhelming Problem" in the Navajo Nation
[click to view]

NYT, "Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous"
[click to view]

[click to view]

Uranium mining companies descend upon Navajo Nation
[click to view]

Navajos ban uranium mining

[click to view]

Media Links

EPA, Addressing Uranium Contamination on the Navajo Nation
[click to view]

Other Documents

Navajo mine workers in 1953
[click to view]

Other CommentsThis is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan.
Meta Information
ContributorBernadette Grafton and Paul Mohai, [email protected] and [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update06/09/2016