By Ann Cummins
Sunday, October 17, 2010; B06
An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed
By Judy Pasternak
Free Press. 317 pp. $26
I first heard about radiation poisoning on the Navajo Reservation in the late 1960s. I was a teenager living on the reservation. My father was one of the white millers employed by the Vanadium Corporation of America (VCA) to run the uranium mill in Shiprock, N.M. News of health disasters came to me as rumors at school: "They say a herd of sheep drank from the river and died. They say miners at Red Mountain are getting sick." Over the next several decades rumor gave way to evidence of serious health problems among uranium miners, their families, the livestock and the land. In her disturbing and illuminating "Yellow Dirt," Judy Pasternak evokes the magnitude of a nuclear disaster that continues to reverberate.
Pasternak locates ground zero in Cane Valley, 30 miles northeast of Arizona's gorgeous red rock country, Monument Valley. Prospectors had been eying the mineral-rich reservation since the early 1920s, but it wasn't until 1938 that Congress passed a law giving the Navajo tribal council authority to issue leases. The following year, Franklin Roosevelt pledged U.S. material support, his "arsenal of democracy," to the allies in the war effort against Germany. Specifically, Roosevelt was interested in developing a domestic supply of carnotite, which yields uranium and vanadium. Vanadium is a steel-hardening agent used for armor-plating in warplanes and weaponry. The VCA immediately took steps to help build the arsenal, contracting with the government and aggressively seeking mining rights on Indian land. In August 1942, the company sealed a deal to mine carnotite in Cane Valley; the agreement stipulated that the VCA must employ Navajo miners.
There's nothing clinical or dry about "Yellow Dirt." While Pasternak cites a wide array of specialists in fields ranging from geology to nuclear physics, the story unfolds like true crime, where real-life heroes and villains play dynamic roles in a drama that escalates page by page. Pasternak briefly traces historical beginnings, from Marie Curie's discovery of radium to the Manhattan Project's work with plutonium, the bombing of Japan and the birth of Harry Truman's postwar baby, the Atomic Energy Commission. She describes how the AEC partnered with U.S. mining companies to fuel the Cold War.
Culling from oral histories and interviews to tell the story of the native people, the author tracks the U.S. nuclear industry as it affected generations in Cane Valley. From the 1920s, Navajo patriarch Adakai presided over the valley. Pasternak beautifully evokes his family's rugged agrarian lifestyle raising sheep in an austere desert. Adakai was only a couple of decades removed from the "Long Walk" generation, which had been subjugated and exiled during the Lincoln administration. Having no reason to trust white people, he refused to cooperate when VCA employees made initial inquiries about yellow rocks in Cane Valley. But his son Luke Yazzie, motivated by patriotism and his family's poverty, was lured by a promised finder's fee and showed them the rocks.
The crime story in "Yellow Dirt" develops around early tensions within the AEC. Pasternak quotes AEC safety inspector Ralph Batie telling a Denver Post reporter in 1949: "Definite radiation hazards exist in all the plants now operating." Batie was ordered to "keep your mouth shut." Jesse Johnson, the liaison between Washington and the mining companies, cut Batie's travel budget and strong-armed him into transferring out of the area. Pasternak writes that "Johnson simply would not allow uranium to pose a distinct peril of its own; he would not let cancer be an issue."
The arms race gave the government a powerful motivation to speed ahead, and the VCA had carte blanche to exploit resources on the reservation. "Exploit" is the appropriate word here. The author details deep cultural and language gaps as well as geographical isolation that allowed the company to cut corners and put the Navajo miners at great risk. The AEC eventually raised safety standards, but neither it nor the VCA effectively educated the non-English-speaking miners about health hazards in yellow dirt, the tailings that piled up all over Indian land. After the industry collapsed in 1969, the piles remained for several years, and Cane Valley residents recycled the dirt, using it to make adobe bricks and radioactive housing, in which they lived for decades.
This crime story builds to a powerful climax: chilling statistical evidence for an epidemic of cancer, birth defects and other devastating fallout from uranium mining on the reservation.
Pasternak is a compelling writer, though she can seem biased, as when she calls Johnson "an ambitious man who liked to feel important." Declarations like this are gratuitous in a book so comprehensive and well-told that readers can draw their own conclusions.
Eye-opening and riveting, "Yellow Dirt" gives a sobering glimpse into our atomic past and adds a critical voice to the debate about resurrecting America's nuclear industry.
Ann Cummins is the author of a novel, "Yellowcake," and curator of "Southwest Book Reviews" for NPR affiliate KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz.