By Yelena Akopian

You don’t have to look far beyond our borders to see a case of one of the most large-scale, flagrant and serious human rights violations occurring in the world. The Navajo Nation, encompassing 27,000 square miles and three states of the American Southwest, has a unique ecology that makes it ideal for uranium mining – a characteristic that the U.S. government took full advantage of during the Cold War. The legacy of government-sponsored uranium mining has haunted the 200,000 inhabitants of the Navajo Nation since. Once Navajos began to make the connection between the uranium contamination and the sickness and death that seemed to plague their communities, activists spent decades trying to force the government to engage in cleanup efforts. Only in very recent years has the government finally responded positively and taken the first steps towards preventing future damage and restoring basic human rights to the Navajos.

Cold-War Contamination

Beginning in 1944, the U.S. government employed private contractors to extract uranium ore from lands in the Navajo Nation. These substances were in high demand during the Cold War, when the U.S. was eager to build up its stockpile of nuclear weapons and develop atomic technology. Between 1944 and 1986, almost four million tons of uranium ore was extracted from the area. As the threat of armed nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union faded away in the 80s, the mining companies abandoned the sites, leaving behind four processing mills and over 1,000 mines (Pasternak 2006). More than 20 years after the sites were abandoned, at the 2007 hearing before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the House of Representatives, Chairman Henry Waxman succinctly summarized what followed:

The companies that had leased the lands simply walked away without cleaning them up. Many of these sites were abandoned in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. In most cases, the mines were left wide open with no warnings about the dangers they posed… Over the years, open pit mines filled with rain and Navajos used the resulting pools for drinking water and to water their herds. Mill tailings and chunks of uranium ore were used to build foundations, floors, and walls for some Navajo homes. Families lived in these radioactive structures for decades. Radioactive dust from abandoned mines and waste piles blew in the air and was inhaled by those who lived nearby. Navajo children played in the mines and the piles of radioactive debris. They drank contaminated water that came straight from the mines (U.S. Congress 4-6).

The Environmental Protection Agency lists 520 abandoned uranium sites, while more broad definitions of abandoned sites lists the number as over 1,200 (U.S. Congress 31). Testimonies revealed that mounds of ore waste up to 60 feet in height sit without warning signs or fencing in close proximity to several homes (U.S. Congress 40). In short, companies hired by the U.S. government during the Cold War to mine for uranium ore and uranium yellowcake exploited the resources of the land, leaving behind deadly remnants with little regard for the effects it might have on the nearby inhabitants.

The Effects

Because no thorough investigation of the effects have ever been conducted, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many Navajos have been directly impacted by these events. According to Dr. Doug Brugge, the connection between uranium, its associated radioactive decay products and an array of health hazards is clear. The associated products include: radon, which causes lung cancer and is the most clear cause of lung cancer among Navajo mine workers; uranium, which is linked to kidney damage and birth defects; radium, which causes various cancers; and arsenic, which can cause lung and skin caner (U.S. Congress 39-41). According to Brugge, the Navajo people even today face grave threats to their health because of chemical exposure.

The Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Program (CRUMP), a grassroots organization of Navajo community members who united to assess the impacts of uranium mining in the absence of government initiative, did a study on 19 “unregulated” water sources in the town of Church Rock, Utah. They found that 17 of these could not meet all the primary and secondary standards for drinking water set forth by the USEPA and could not be recommended for human consumption. CRUMP also found that the amount of gamma radiation near over a dozen local homes was 9 to 16 times greater than the amount considered normal for the area (CRUMP, 2004). Individual stories and personal testimonies by families who have suffered from sudden cancers, kidney disease, birth deformities and other unexplainable illnesses suddenly afflicting multiple members of the same family are undoubtedly linked to the high levels of gamma radiation found in and around Navajo homes, soil, air and water. Larry King, who spent eight years working as an underground mill surveyor, said of the unexplainably high rates of cancer and disease in his community at Church Rock, Utah, “We believe that all these illnesses are related to the past mining and milling operations, but it’s difficult to prove because no comprehensive health study has ever been done in our community” (U.S. Congress 48).

In 1956, the incidence of cancer among the Navajo population was so low that one researcher even published a report titled “Cancer immunity in the Navajo” (Paskus 2006). Since then, however, the rates of several types of cancer (notably the ones most associated with the by-products of uranium mining) are now several times higher in the Navajo population than the national average (Paskus 2006). Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, echoing the feelings of much of his constituency, equates the Navajo people’s history with uranium contamination to genocide:

There is no other word for what happened… the era of uranium mining on Navajoland was genocidal because the hazards of cancer and respiratory disease were known to doctors and federal officials, and yet they allowed Navajos to be exposed to deadly radiation to see what would happen to them. As a result, radiation exposure has cost the Navajo Nation the accumulated wisdom, knowledge, stories, songs and ceremonies — to say nothing of the lives — of hundreds of our people.

Despite the lack of government-initiated study on the effects of uranium mining on Navajo people, there is an abundance of evidence that makes a clear connection between uranium contamination to the environment and increased rates of illness and death among the Navajo.


Attempts at justice, compensation and reconciliation for this deadly history have been grossly inadequate. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, a federal law offering monetary compensation to uranium mine workers who were exposed to high levels of radon and contracted cancer or other specific diseases as a result, applies only to those living in Utah, Arizona and Nevada. In 2005, National Research Council concluded that “many people who received high doses of radiation were ineligible for compensation simply because they lived outside the boundaries set up by the 1990 law… the report presented 22 recommendations to improve the program, [but] thus far there has been no official response to the report” (Paskus 2006). According to Johnston, the current model for defining the impacts of environmental damage is flawed because insufficient attention is given to psychosocial trauma and spiritual/cultural concerns by basing compensation “on a Western notion of property and individualism that… fails to consider the less-quantifiable and longer term problems experienced” (Johnston 114).

“Hozho” and the Spiritual Consequences

Given the profound connection between Navajo people and the land, as well as the vital role it plays in their spiritual and cultural beliefs, the human rights implications of environmental damage are much greater than can be assessed by a purely Western notion of rights. Navajo resident and activist Edith Hood eruditely explained the Navajo concept of “hozho”: “Hozho is how we live our lives. It means balance, beauty and harmony between us the Five-Finger people, and nature. When this balance is disturbed, our way of life, our health and our well-being all suffer. The uranium contamination and mining wastes at my home continue to disrupt hozho” (U.S. Congress 77). When viewed in the context of the spiritual beliefs and cultural practices that govern the Navajo way of life, the harmful effects of uranium contamination go far beyond physical damage and medical afflictions. Navajo connection with the earth is vital to their ability to practice their religious and spiritual beliefs by allowing them to communicate with higher spiritual powers and shaping their belief systems and identity (U.S. Congress 83). According to a statement by Navajo Nation member and U.S. veteran Phil Harrison, “the Navajo people revere Mother Earth (land) as sacred within a highly spiritual context. So, when uranium mining occurs, it’s considered ripping out the guts of Mother Earth” (U.S. Congress 82). “The Navajos’ ties to the land where they are born is profound. We don’t just move when conditions become difficult…relocating a Navajo from her ancestral land is tantamount to separating the Navajo from her spirit’” (U.S. Congress 27).

Johnston’ explanation of human rights violations in regards to environment fits perfectly with the Navajo case. She says that they occur partly when “people are living in isolation far from densely populated regions and near economic or strategic mineral resources” (113). Exploited by those seeing economic, political and environmental opportunities, the inhabitants “become displaced, alienated from their traditional holdings, and experience increasing difficulty in maintaining individual, household, and community health” (Johnston 113). While responsible parties can arguably make up for the physical impacts of uranium mining through forms of material compensation and health care, it is much more difficult to fathom how one could even begin to rectify the spiritual harms done to Navajo “peace of mind” that is disturbed through the process and consequences of uranium mining.

Failed Federal Response

One might expect that, since links between inexplicably high rates of illness in the Navajo community and uranium contamination began to be established decades ago, the responsible party would take the initiative to resolve these problems. In reality, the government agencies whose responsibility it has been to protect Navajo health and environmental safety have utterly failed to serve Navajo people. Under the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978, the Department of Energy is responsible for cleaning up inactive uranium milling sites that were abandoned at the time of the legislation and under oversight of the state and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Department of Energy, however, ruled that the responsibility of handling the mines rested in the hands of the Navajo Nation, not the federal government (U.S. Congress 119). The Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to address the issues of uranium contamination have been minimal at best. A grassroots organization called the Abandoned Uranium Mining Collaborative in 2003 submitted a list of about 90 homes that they believed were built with contaminated materials to the EPA. Five years later, the EPA had investigated and cleaned only two of these homes (U.S. Congress 113-114). Despite the presence of numerous piles of uranium waste up to 60 feet in height, the EPA has so far removed about 6,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. A member of the EPA estimated that this solved less than 1 percent of the total problem. A Kentucky representative called the situation “a stunning example of failure on the part of our Government” (U.S. Congress 97).

Government-initiated response to the case came for the first time on October 23, 2007. Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Henry A. Waxman, a House Representative from Beverly Hills, CA, called together a hearing in response to a series of articles published in The Los Angeles Times chronicling the impacts of mine waste on various Navajo families. As a result of this meeting, in June 2008, five federal agencies jointly submitted a Five-Year Plan to the Committee, which lays out a plan of action to begin to clean up the widespread contamination. Nonetheless, the “Superfund” program estimates that it will take 20 to 60 years before the contamination problem is thoroughly assessed and fixed (EPA 2). Ultimately, the federal government has met Navajo please for decontamination with rejection, denial and inaction for decades, and it will take generations more before the Navajo environment can be fully restored.

The “Right to Life” and Parallels to the Bhopal Disaster

Uranium mining and it’s associated contamination has been responsible for a legacy which severely infringes on a number of principles established by the United Nations as basic human rights. The Navajo case can in many ways be compared to the events that occurred in Bhopal, India in 1985. In both cases, corporate irresponsibility and neglect resulted in major ecological damage that occurred as a result of chemical contamination, leading to destruction of the water supply, damage to air quality and “leaving successive generations permanently at risk for chronic side effects that reduce life quality and expectancy” (Fishlin & Nandorfy 3). The most basic and crucial right, the right to life and security of person, recognized in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is blatantly violated in both cases. This includes “the right to health… occupational safety and health; the right to an adequate standard of living [which is destroyed when local environments are made toxic]… an adequate and wholesome diet, and decent housing; the right to culture, equality and nondiscrimination, dignity and harmonious development of the personality; the right to security of person and of the family” (Johnston 112). Clearly, violations of the most fundamental human rights have occurred in both cases.

The similarities do not end there. Both cases point out questions that are vital in accessing the human rights framework. Despite the existence of various human rights organizations, groups and doctrines within in the U.S. and internationally, gross human rights violations continued for decades within our very own borders to U.S. citizens before the problems were brought to light by The Los Angeles Times journalist Judy Pasternak. “Rights may abound in theory, but global divisions of power dramatically subvert their meaningfulness” (Fishlin & Nandorfy 7).

Usefulness and Application of the Human Rights Framework

Additionally, the unequal application of human rights principles across different socially and politically powerful groups points out another troubling aspect of the human rights framework. Stephen Etsitty, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, points out that at the same time as evidence of groundwater contamination in the Navajo Nation gathers, a similar site in Moab, Utah had been properly and quickly cleaned up by the federal government. He asks, “Why is this not happening on the Navajo reservation? Are we seeing environmental injustice in action once again?” (U.S. Congress 35). Chairman of the Navajo Nation Council George Arthur asked “Are those people or their water resources more valuable than Navajos?” (U.S. Congress 26). Although human rights discussions are intrinsically based on the idea of human equality, unequal application directly contradicts this principle. This is allowed for when the cultural context of the situation is dominated by a process of social construction where “marginal people are seen to be biologically, culturally and socially inferior, providing the justification for state domination” (Fishlin & Nandorfy 6). These physical, conceptual, and cultural mechanisms act as ways in which the mainstream distances itself from the marginal population, and contributes significantly to the inability of governments to protect human rights (Johnston 116). According to Fishlin & Nandorfy, “This is a doctrine based on passive denial: you have the right if you can actively pursue it or if your sphere of influence means access of power”(6). If the principles of human rights aren’t applicable to those who suffer most from it’s violations, and the most vulnerable and disenfranchised members of society can’t benefit from them, then the true value and meaning behind assumptions and discussions about human rights must be reevaluated.

Image of Navajo Indian Reservation in Coconino County, Arizona by Terry Eiler. Courtesy of U.S. National Archives.


  1. I too believe it’s important to address these ongoing injustices which are heavily burdening the livelihood of the Navajo Nation to this present day as a human rights issue. This is because it shows how the United States’ government and corporates have already decided whose lives and which communities are more valued while disregarding any claims of the Navajo Nation’s sovereignty, citizenship, and the direct dependency to their ecosystem. However, I think we need to be asking more questions of within corporate organizations, like the Bhopal disaster, where it was a U.S. owned company, but had local outside shareholders who financially regulated and ran the projects… then who is responsible for these violations within corporate/government infrastructure? And how can we use human rights violations such as these and make it so that these external/internal higher interest groups are liable for these injustices?


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