Judy Pasternak Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Judy Pasternak
Photo: Gail Fisher

Judy Pasternak

An interview with Judy Pasternak

A video in which Judy Pasternak discusses her nonfiction book Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, plus a timeline

A timeline of government neglect, as revealed in Yellow Dirt

  • 1942:  Vanadium Corporation of America starts uranium mining in Dine Bikeyah, promising to return the land "in as good condition as received" and "commit no waste on the land."
     
  • 1945: Atomic bomb is dropped in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  • 1949: Soviets successfully test their A-bomb. The arms race intensifies.
     
  • 1950: Public Health Service (PHS) launches a study monitoring human health and the mine conditions.

  • 1952: PHS, along with the Colorado Health Department (CHD), publish "An Interim Report of a Health Study of the Uranium Mines and Mills," citing enough risk for the miners to take major precautions. Their recommendations are ignored.
     
  • 1952: To reduce the size of the waste pile in the predominantly white town of Grand Junction, CO, the mill opens its doors to anyone who wants to cart away sand – sand, of course, laced with uranium debris.

  • 1953: Miners at Monument No. 2, the richest site on the Navajo reservation, are producing 300 tons of high grade ore daily. Air sample testing done by the U.S. Bureau of Mines reports radon emissions up to 120 times greater than the recommended standard.
     
  • 1957: Jesse C. Johnson, director of raw materials for the Atomic Energy Commission, announces "it is no longer in the interest of the federal government to expand the production of the uranium concentrates."

  • 1960: The number of lung cancer deaths in the PHS study group reaches ten while heart disease deaths are 11 times higher than predicted.
     
  • 1966: Only 22 Indians and three white supervisors are still working at the Monument No. 2 mine.

  • 1966: The Colorado Health Dept. discovers that the tailings in Grand Junction have been used as bedding on which floors and foundations were placed.
     
  • 1967: Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz issues a regulation declaring that no uranium miner could be exposed to radon at levels that would induce a higher risk of cancer than that faced by the general population.

  • 1969: By production's end, 1.4 million tons of uranium ore have been supplied to the American people from the Navajo mines.
     
  • 1970: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is created; five years later, the EPA dispatches nine radiation experts to Dine Bikeyah.

  • 1971: The U.S. government makes a concerted effort to remove uranium tailings in some 4,000 structures in the predominantly white town of Grand Junction, CO. Under pressure from Grand Junction's powerful champions at the state level and in Congress, the AEC chairman says America has "a moral obligation" to cleanse the town. Federal authorities replace foundations and floors. They tear up yards and put in clean soil. They plant saplings and roll out sod.
     
  • 1971: Federal funds flow to a reservation home-renovation program that hires Navajo contractors to install improvements using material supplied by the residents. Unaware of the danger, many use uranium tailings and waste to keep costs down.

  • 1975: EPA team leader Joe Hans accidentally discovers more than a dozen radioactive houses in the valley below Monument No. 2. Superiors spurn his plea to replace the homes. He returns to warn the locals to move, but they don't understand what he is telling him—and in any case, they have nowhere to go and no money to build new dwellings.
     
  • 1977:  Unknown to the valley residents, Joe Hans urges the new Department of Energy to clean up at least nine of the most dangerous houses in the Valley. DOE fixes three of them.

  • 1978: Twenty-five mining veterans in the study have fallen to lung cancer. Spurred by the Grand Junction scandal, Congress finally authorizes a cleanup of the 22 tailings piles around the country, including four on Navajo land.
     
  • 1979: Some 93 million gallons of radioactive liquid pour into the riverbed at Church Rock, making it the largest accidental release of radioactive material in the U.S. history. And yet, the EPA's consultants conclude that no baseline testing of the river had ever been conducted, so there is no way to separate natural radiation and heavy metals from contamination by the spill.

  • 1980: The Navajo tribe discovers 17 "uranium houses" in the settlement of Oaksprings, Ariz.
     
  • 1981:  Navajo environmental director Harold Tso scrapes together enough federal money to replace a handful of the Oaksprings houses. The tribe evicts the families living in the remaining "hot houses" and padlocks their doors.

  • 1981: Medical researchers gather in Albuquerque to discuss puzzling signs emerging from the Southwest. Among Navajo teens, reproductive, breast, and bone cancers are as much as 17 times higher than expected. Sex ratios are off; miscarriages and birth defects have increased.
     
  • 1983: With former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall as their lawyer, Navajo mining veterans and widows have their day in court. But though the judge notes "this tragedy of the Nuclear Age cries out for redress," he concludes the US government cannot be held liable for the dead and dying. The Navajos appeal to no avail.

  • 1983: Congress passes the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action law to seal off the massive debris piles from the processing centers, which for decades have sent radioactive dust off on the wind, leached into groundwater and continued to provide construction materials for the practical Navajos, despite the outcry over Grand Junction.
     
  • Mid-1980s: Disturbing signs surface that lung cancer is not the only form of cancer caused by chronic low-level radiation from the mines. Pathologists find isotopes that emit alpha particles (the most harmful to human cells) concentrating not only in the lungs, but in the liver, kidney, spleen, gonad and heart. A review of 259 dead uranium miners shows lung cancer rates 56 times as high as the general population—but also a liver cancer rate was 263 times higher than the national average, prostate cancer 45 times higher;  pancreas, 78 times higher; bladder, 68 times higher.

  • 1989: The Department of Energy finally begins work on removing the Navajo tailings piles, including one at the Monument No. 2 site. The job is poorly handled – workers say they weren't required to wear protection. Contaminated soil underneath the piles is not scraped, leaving mining byproducts to continue leaching into groundwater below. The work proceeds in fits and starts as funding sputters. While 1.3 million tons of contaminated material is finally transported out of the valley, but only a few of the "hot" houses listed previously by the EPA are repaired.
     
  • 1990: Congress passes the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act, which contains the clause: "The Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation to the individuals described in subsection (e) and their families for the hardships they have endured." A compensation program for sick former miners is set up.

  • 1998: The student film "Hear Our Voices" premieres, garnering acclaim at film festivals and bringing awareness of the Navajo uranium plight to the locals.
     
  • 2001: An interest in producing more electricity and transport fuel for an energy-hungry America puts uranium back in the spotlight. Uranium prices rise from $7.10 a pound in 2000 to $14.50 in 2003 to $20 in 2004 to $43.50 in 2006.

  • 2002: The EPA denies an application for the Indian Health Service to bring in clean water at Black Falls because, according to the EPA, there is no evidence that locals are drinking polluted water—even though EPA has given a citizens' award to an activist trying to help his neighbors get a safe drinking supply. More testing is done, still revealing high levels on contamination in the water.

  • 2003: The first pipeline is built to provide sanitary drinking water to the valley below Monument No. 2.

  • 2005: Tribal council passes the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act, banning further uranium mining on the reservation.
     
  • 2006: Judy Pasternak's Los Angeles Times series runs, exposing, for the first time, the extent of the toxic legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo reservation.

  • 2007: Prosecutor John C. Hueston is hired by the Navajo Department of Justice and, within months, gets El Paso Energy (which bought a former mill operator) to help pay for safety measures at an illegal mill dump and lobby for federal funds to clean it up. He vows to continue going after mining companies.
     
  • 2007: Congressman Henry Waxman summons The Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy before his committee. The agencies come up with a five-year cleanup plan.

  • 2008: Nearly one-third of Navajo households are still unconnected to the public water system.
     
  • 2009: Navajo and Hopi scientists examine eroding uranium ore dumps that were once covered up and collect potential evidence for the Navajos' lawyers.

  • 2009: EPA contractors demolish three dozen "uranium houses" and start building new ones. In the fall, U.S. and tribal representatives turn over the first keys to replacement homes and distribute checks to those who chose compensation instead. Clean water is being provided to some 4,000 people served by the first tainted wells confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control. The Indian Health Service and CDC launch a study of health effects.
     
  • 2010: Descendants of Adakai move into their new, safe houses and other relatives also lay plans to return to their ancestral home.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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