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  • Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed
  • Laura Brennaman (bio)
Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed. Judy Pasternak. New York, NY: Free Press, 2010. 336 pp.

In Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, Judy Pasternak relays the nearly 70-year saga of two intertwined nations, the United States and the Navajo, through the rise of the atomic age and the realization of profound human and environmental costs that nuclear weapons and energy have wrought. Uranium, the source of atomic power, is an abundant resource within the historic land of the Navajo people. Pasternak's saga documents the U.S. government's zealous quest to mine this uranium, while exploiting the residents of the region to fulfill the mission of the Manhattan Project and to meet the perceived needs of the Cold War nuclear arms race. Ruthless mining and ore processing ensued for 40 years with catastrophic and enduring environmental and health results.

The United States' dogged pursuit of nuclear arms combined with multiple governmental agencies' avoidance of responsibility for the protection of its citizens yielded a disaster of monumental proportions. Pasternak demonstrates with detail and precision how federal, state, and even tribal agency after agency forsook fundamental governmental obligations to protect citizens and uphold constitutional and treaty rights. The lack of accountability began in the 1940s, when the Army Corps of Engineers secretively enabled lucrative contracts for mining companies to exploit the natural resources of tribal lands with minimal compensation to the Navajo people. This mistreatment and corruption continued as the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of Mines, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and others discounted the value of the Navajo people and ignored the evidence of health risks to Navajo miners, their families, and their community. This disgraceful treatment continued as the contamination problems proliferated to the point of people living in radioactive homes and drinking water that Pasternak refers to as a "witch's brew,"[p.359] resulting in lives cut short, thousands suffering through illness, and epidemics of birth defects.

This compelling chronicle leaves the reader outraged, but provoked into action to prod policymakers to correct the injustices and ensure that similar ones do not recur. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cleanup of the massive radioactive waste only began in 2007, stimulated by the Navajo people calling attention to the problem after 60 years of contamination and active neglect. Pasternak warns that renewed interest in nuclear energy has motivated new attention to uranium mining. Without cautious oversight of environmental and health protections, recent progress could be for naught. [End Page 922]

Pasternak reports many lung diseases and cancers, and "Navajo neuropathy" began to plague residents of the uranium mining regions about 15 years after mining began. Prior to that, she describes the phenomenon of Navajo immunity to cancer. Then the rate of cancer deaths among the Navajo skyrocketed. Into the 1990s many of the cancer-sufferers were teenagers; Pasternak reports the frequency rate of cancer for young Navajos being 17 times the national population norm.

As early as 1953, physicians and researchers from the AEC and the Public Health Service (PHS) were intrigued by the opportunity to study radiation exposure in a "natural environment," after previous research conducted on patients injected with radioactive substances was discontinued. However, in the work environment where miners encountered radiation exposure, PHS researchers were able to gain much knowledge. Between 1953 and 1960, the unsuspecting "study group" of Navajo miners provided evidence that radiation exposures increased the frequency of malignancies and lung diseases. Although medical journals published these analyses, the scandal early PHS physicians predicted for this "study" never materialized. By the time evidence of the health hazards for miners reached the U.S. Bureau of Labor, which had clear authority to regulate health and safety for employees of companies working under federal contract, the mines had already shut down due to a market glut of uranium. During this period, no regulatory agency with oversight authority stepped up to initiate radiation cleanup, enabling a legacy of further uranium contamination in soil and water.

As the rates of birth defects began to...


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pp. 922-924
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