Gold King Mine Spill and the Navajo Nation

Another example in the long line of injustices against the Navajo Nation, over 2,000 Navajo farmers have been unable to use their normal water stream in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill of 2015.[1] On August 5th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was checking up on Gold King, attempting to clear debris from the long closed mine. Not following protocol in multiple instances, 3 million gallons of toxic water were released into the Animas River, turning it a vile shade of yellow.[2]

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald 08/06/15-Durango - Mine waste from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton fills the Animas River at Bakers Bridge on Thursday morning.

Animas River in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, August 2015. (Jerry McBride, Durango Herald)

This pernicious water stream began in Silverton, Colorado, an old mining town that has fallen on tough times. At its peak in the early 20th century, Silverton was thriving; 2,000 of its residents worked for one of the many mines in the area. However, this prosperity is fickle in the mining industry and eventually the amount of jobs dried up and people were forced to find other sources of income. Considering the vast beauty of the American West, becoming a tourism spot often bears a fruitful source of income. Towns such as Breckenridge, Aspen and Telluride have all adapted out of mining into popular tourism destinations that boast world class skiing and hiking.

Silverton, on the other hand, has had a tough time letting go of its mining past. Johnathan Thompson of High Country News described the sentiment of one local: “He mourned the loss not just of jobs and money, but also of authenticity and, in a way, identity. Mining is real, genuine palpable; tourism is entertainment.”[3] Sympathy can be felt towards the people of Silverton for their loss of identity, but mining has a far greater impact on the surrounding environment and has the power to harm many communities located outside of the Silverton area. Even as late as 2014, a mining company, Colorado Goldfields, existed with the purpose of revitalizing the mining industry in and around Silverton. Companies like Colorado Goldfields have prevented the local mines from receiving Superfund status, which designates especially detrimental areas and provides the necessary resources to clean them. This nostalgia and disregard for the environment has left many downstream communities feeling the burden of this harmful industry.

In the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater flowed down from the Animas River, eventually merging into the San Juan River. The San Juan River flows through the land of the Navajo Nation, who have faced a multitude of environmental injustices over the course of their history. Currently, there are around 1,100 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation land causing detrimental long term health effects.


Spill path of toxic water into New Mexico and Utah. (Lorena Iñiguez Elebee, Los Angeles Times)

As mentioned above, over 2,000 farmers have lost their water stream, causing crops to dry up. In the little over one year that has passed since the spill, the Navajo Nation feel that the EPA has not done an adequate job in the clean up and restoration of the affected areas, and have even filed a lawsuit against the agency.[4] The EPA has not done enough testing on the river sediment, which could cause long term health effects. One Navajo local from Mexican Water, Utah, was skeptical of the EPA conclusions: “We know this river. We know the sediment moves slowly and that the worst of the pollution is yet to come.”

That same community of Mexican Water had not seen any help from the EPA for months after the spill. This area is very isolated, there are no nearby paved roads and the nearest grocery store is 35 miles away. Even areas that saw relief from the EPA complained that the quality was not up to their standards. Water is sacred to the Navajo; they use it in its pure form for many religious ceremonies. Therefore, they have still not deemed the San Juan river water usable, even if the EPA has said otherwise.

Who is to blame for this environmental disaster? The EPA has taken responsibility for the spill, but do they deserve 100% of the criticism? Ethel Branch, the attorney general of the Navajo Nation, stated, ”From the very beginning, the EPA tried to shift the conversation to the overwhelming nature of dealing with abandoned hard rock mines in the West, in my view to dilute the significance of what occurred and the need for them to be accountable and to clean up the contamination or address it in some way.” Silverton residents have fought for the revitalization of the mining industry, even in recent years. Fearing the stigma of Superfund status, residents rejected the EPA’s help multiple times.[5] However, Ms. Branch brings up a fair point. Just because the EPA was put in a tough cleanup position does not discount the problems of the Navajo Nation. They still do not have a reliable water stream for farming or religious activities. The burden of responsibility lies with both the EPA and the mining community of Silverton. A higher priority needs to be placed on cleanup efforts in the Navajo Nation as they are a low income community that was not at all responsible for this environmental disaster.







Uranium Mining in Navajo Nation

In 1948, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission issued a statement that it would purchase all mined uranium for the cause of developing nuclear weapons. Mining companies flocked to Navajo Nation, employing about 3,000 Navajo men. Workers were only paid an hourly wage of about $0.81 to $1.00 in 1949, yet many families initially viewed uranium mining as an employment opportunity.[1] However, obvious costs soon outweighed the benefits, and the environmental injustices committed within Navajo Nation still remain unresolved today.


Unethical Practices

In 1950, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted research on health hazards and acknowledged Navajo workers were exposed to levels of radon high enough to cause cancer. While many Navajo people suspected that the dramatic increase in lung cancer mortalities were due to unsafe conditions in uranium mines, they did not have the scientific education to understand the lethal effects of uranium. In fact, the word “uranium” did not even exist in the Navajo language. The PHS did not follow through in establishing proper ventilation standards and kept the results of the study unpublished in order to avoid causing worker strikes. The ethical violations of the 1950 study are apparent in the way that informed consent, or the communication of risks and hazards to the experimental participants – the workers, was not practiced[2]. Therefore, the federal government clearly had knowledge of the lethal health affects, but did not take any action to decrease miner mortality.

Political Economic Framework

The exploitation of Navajo wage labor for the profit and prosperity of several mine company owners clearly demonstrates how the Navajo people were incorporated into the capitalist cycle of production. According to Robbins, Hintz, and Moore, “a tragic combination of high profits and bureaucratic inertia allowed for terrible mine conditions” (215).[3] Capitalists, or mine company owners, generated more profit by paying workers less than the true value of their labor. In the cycle, this extra revenue was necessary for operating costs and expanding the corporate monopoly. The capitalist system eventually exploits all readily available environmental resources or must sacrifice non-labor values for the sake of high profits. Environmental degradation, or radioactive contamination, results, posing further challenges to mining companies.[4] Because reservations are sovereign, government regulations to keep mining practices in-check are lax. Analyzing the issue through a political economic framework reveals that mining threatens the health and physical environment of targeted individuals. Therefore, the degradation of sacred land is synonymous with the destruction of Navajo cultural identity.

Upholding Sovereignty

Multiple lawsuits against mining corporations and the federal government proved ineffective, as the government repeatedly cited mining interests as necessary for fulfilling national security. The efforts of these grassroots organizations eventually culminated in the passage of Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990, a law finally designed to compensate Navajo workers.[5]

Although Navajo Nation has made significant progress in seeking environmental justice, there is still much more growth necessary for the complete revitalization of Navajo culture. RECA was insufficient in its compensation to many miners, and still today, the Navajo people are struggling to ward off advances from the uranium industry. The renewed interest of mining on Navajo lands can be traced to Vice President Richard Cheney’s 2001 energy task force that prioritized the expansion of nuclear power. Mining companies campaigned for support using the lure of jobs, a drawing factor for the impoverished citizens of many New Mexican reservation towns. Hostility emerged on the side of pro-mining interests, who claimed that the Navajo were seizing public land for themselves[6], further alienating and victimizing the Navajo people.

Overall, Navajo land has not been restored to the fully habitable state prior to radioactive contamination. 409 mines have radiation levels more than twice the background level, which continues to pose a threat to people’s health.[7] Although the government has played somewhat of a role in remediation efforts, much action is still necessary to block industry advances and alleviate racial tensions.

[1] Brugge, Doug, Timothy Benally, and Esther Yazzie-Lewis. The Navajo People and Uranium Mining. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

[2] Charley, Perry H., Susan E. Dawson, Gary E. Madsen, and Bryan R. Spykerman. 2004. “Navajo Uranium Education Programs: The Search for Environmental Justice.” Applied Environmental Education & Communication 3, no. 2: 101-108. GreenFILE, EBSCOhost (accessed October 28, 2016).

[3] Robbins, Paul, John Hintz, and Sarah A. Moore. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[4] Sbicca, Joshua. “Elite and Marginalised Actors in Toxic Treadmills: Challenging the Power of the State, Miilitary, and Economy.” Taylor & Francis Online, April 20, 2012. Accessed November 4, 2016.

[5] Voyles, Traci Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

[6] Voyles, Traci Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

[7] Ram, N. M., Moore, C. and McTiernan, L. (2016), Cleanup Options for Navajo Abandoned Uranium Mines. Remediation, 26: 131–148. doi:10.1002/rem.21473

Uranium Mining On Navajo Lands as a Violation of Tribal Sovereignty

When most people think of the Cold War they think of the conflict between the U.S and Russia and how a generation grew up in fear of nuclear war. However, the Cold War also significantly affected another group of people: The Navajo Nation. The Navajo suffered the negative impacts of uranium mining that was necessary to create nuclear bombs. The legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands is a legacy of mistrust, exploitation, disease, and waste.ap105779489776_custom-5f8b50b562658f59d256675c5265381067e39f1c-s1500-c85

Starting in 1948, at the beginning of the cold war, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) said it would buy all uranium for a guaranteed price, which set off a uranium mining boom in the Southwest. Mines were operated by private companies, but sold only to the US government until 1971[1]. The negative environmental and health effects of uranium mining in the Southwest landed heavily on the Navajo people. Currently there are 521 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land, one for every 52 square miles of the reservation[5]. In Environment and Society, Robbins, Hintz and Moore write that the Navajo reservation “offered up an opportunity for a high rate of labor exploitation and negligent environmental practices, an avenue that many capitalists (and bureaucrats) were content to travel”[7] .


The United States government violated the Navajo Nation’s tribal sovereignty by supporting private uranium mines on Navajo lands. This is argument is supported by two main points: 1) Navajo people were not given adequate education on the dangers of uranium mining in order to make informed decisions, and 2) the history of disenfranchisement of native peoples by the U.S. government made the Navajo vulnerable to economic exploitation.

seal1Native tribes are defined by the Supreme Court as “dependent sovereigns” because “their sovereignty predates that of the United States, but that it is nonetheless internal to, and dependent upon, the federal government[3]“. Sarah Krakoff defines environmental justice for tribes as “the achievement of tribal authority to control and improve the reservation environment,” making a respect for tribal sovereignty central to tribal EJ issues.

The Navajo Nation did have a role in choosing to have uranium mining on their land but were given little to no information on its health and environmental risks. This took away the tribes ability to make an informed choice. By the 1930s there was scientific evidence of a correlation between uranium exposure and high rates of lung cancer[1]. At the beginning of the mining boom, many Navajo workers did not speak English and lacked formal education, and there was little effort by mining companies to help educate workers across these boundaries. For example, after a 1950 Public Heath Service study on uranium, English pamphlets were given out to some miners on health risks without any translations or further explanation[1]. The U.S. government and private mining companies withheld information from Navajo miners and tribal leaders, which violated their ability to make independent decisions based on all available resources.

The Navajo people are vulnerable to economic exploitation because, since the lands they once used for subsistence living were taken away by the U.S., they are forced to depend on wage labor. Tribal councils can approve or deny mining leases, but mining is often one1406311648000-uranium01
of the only economic growth opportunities for tribes. In this way Navajo governments are basically forced into mining as a short-term solution for economic survival, which leads to disastrous long term health and economic impacts.

The U.S. government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1991 which uses the distributive justice method to give former uranium miners compensation. RECA falls short in real justice because it only addresses a small part of the problem. RECA applies only to miners who worked before 1971 and doesn’t apply to non-miners in the affected community. Non-miners in Navajo communities continue to suffer from uranium exposure due to abandoned mines and water contamination. It is also hard to compensate people with money for things that are difficult to quantify, like losing a family member. The social justice framework outlined by Gary Bryner in Justice and Natural Resources should be used because it aims to tackle the root of injustices, look at power dynamics and take into account cultural losses[2]. It asserts that every single Navajo citizen has the right to clean water, affordable and adequate healthcare and safe working conditions. Using this framework, the U.S. government’s approach could address all the impacts of uranium mining and treat it as current, pressing injustice to the Navajo people.

The Navajo are fighting back against the uranium industry. In 2005, the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining on their land in the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act[4]. The kids-protest-2-1act was passed in response to a push by the Bush administration to increase the use of nuclear power as a clean energy source. In 2013, the Navajo Nation Council voted to block Uranium Resources Inc. from building new mining projects on the reservation[6]. Now that the Navajo Nation has information on and experience with the health and environmental harms of uranium mining, they are rejecting it from their lands.

It is clear that the U.S. government and private mining companies exploited the Navajo people and violated their tribal sovereignty by failing to educate the Navajo on the risks of uranium mining and taking advantage of their vulnerable economic situation. Robbins, Hintz and Moore sum it up, writing: “The Navajo uranium era, as such, represents a classic and tragic case of environmental injustice – where unhealthful or dangerous conditions are disproportionately proximate to minority communities[7].”

Sources and Further Readings: 

  1. Brugge, Doug and Rob Golbe. “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 92, no. 9, 2002, pp. 1410-1419.
  2. Bryner, Gary C. “Assessing Claims of Environmental Justice: Conceptual Frameworks.” Justice and Natural Resources, edited by Mutz, Kathryn M., Gary C. Bryner and Douglas S. Kenney, Island Press, 2002, pp. 31-55.
  3. Krakoff, Sarah. “Tribal Sovereignty and Environmental Justice.” Justice and Natural Resources, edited by Mutz, Kathryn M., Gary C. Bryner and Douglas S. Kenney, Island Press, 2002, pp. 161- 183.
  4. LaDuke, Winona. “Navajos ban uranium mining.” Earth Island Journal, 2005.
  5. Loomis, Brandon. “Abandoned uranium mines continue to haunt Navajos on reservation.” The Arizona Republic.
  6. Minard, Anne. “Navajo Nation Slams Door on Deal That Would Have Allowed Uranium Mining.” Indian Country Today Media Network. August 1, 2014.
  7. Robbins, Paul, John Hintz and Sarah A. Moor. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

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