Uranium mining during the Cold War spread contamination across the American Southwest and heavily impacted the Navajo Nation. This is the story of how my family was affected.
My name is Tommy Rock, PhD., and I am from the Navajo tribe in the southwest U.S. I live in Monument Valley, Utah, which is in southeastern Utah near the Four Corners area (where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet). Monument Valley is also on the Navajo Nation. Monument Valley was made famous by John Wayne and John Ford when it appeared in their western movies such as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache, just to name a few. This place has a beautiful red stone hovering above the arid desert landscape.
Growing Up With My Grandparents
My story begins with my being raised by my grandparents. During the winter months, we lived in Copper Canyon, which is in the northwestern part of Monument Valley. Copper Canyon has a spring that flows year-round. We have our livestock there, our cattle and horses. The area is surrounded by redstone walls like a corral with two ways out. The area is also arid with desert shrubs. During the summer we went to our summer camp out of Copper Canyon.
We lived in a wooden shack. I think my grandfather built it long ago. Seems like the structure was there an eternity because that is all I remember. My grandmother was the only one that had a bed. My grandfather and I had a sheepskin that we slept on. Every morning my grandfather would tell me to go run, and, if I did not get up, he poured water on me. He said that it would make me strong.
As I grew older, I learned that my grandfather was a World War II veteran. My grandfather was not that tall, maybe around 5 feet 5 inches. He was a hard worker and he planned things out with great patience and thought. Ever since I could remember, he always had this little inhaler with him. He would stop in the middle of what he was doing as if he could not breathe. He would use that inhaler and cough for a while then continue working once he got his breath back. He would never show any pain or weakness. As a little kid, he was like Superman to me and I never knew what the inhaler was or why he was using it.
Visiting the Mines
One day, my grandfather and I went to a former mine site called Moonlight Mine. This abandoned uranium mine was where my grandfather once worked. The Moonlight Mine had a big boulder blocking the entrance, and there was a mine shaft that went straight down to a bottomless pit. He looked at the boulder for what seemed like forever. Uranium mine waste was all along the edge of the open pit. I did not know what it was, and, being a kid, I ended up playing in it. After a while, my grandfather turned around. We left, and he did not say a single word the entire trip back. Usually, my grandfather would be singing, but this time he was not. He seemed distant, lost in his own thoughts.
One of my cousins and I would explore all these abandoned uranium mines in our adolescent years. We even explored a little of the Moonlight Mine that had a deep vertical shaft, but we never found out how deep it was. We threw rocks or anything that we could get our hands on down the vertical shaft. What I found interesting was the big boulder blocking the entrance of the mine shaft on the eastern wall. I wondered if there was anything underneath that boulder like a piece of mine equipment.
The Story About the Boulder at Moonlight Mine
After high school, I went to Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona to get my bachelor’s degree. When I was done, I came back to spend time with my grandparents. One morning, my grandfather and I were at his hogan (a traditional home for the Navajo tribe). We were sitting at his table eating brunch, having coffee. The door was open, and we were enjoying the summer day. He started by saying that the Moonlight Mine was the last uranium mine he worked at. He said he was walking out of the tunnel one day with a load of uranium ore. There were a couple of guys with him; some were ahead of him. He was the second to last. The last guy was also taking a load of uranium ore out with him. He was a friend of my grandfather. My grandfather hesitated to talk about his friend for a moment. Then my grandfather said that as they were exiting the mine, a big boulder fell on his friend. It killed him instantly. My grandfather made it out but not his friend and the boulder became the gravesite for his friend.
Grandfather's Uranium Exposure
As I started my master’s program, I noticed my grandfather’s asthma getting worse. He was in and out of hospitals more frequently. He ended up staying at a nursing home. He never told me he had cancer. I only knew he had an oxygen tank with him everywhere he went. My grandfather, once a rugged, strong man was now in a wheelchair with oxygen strapped in the back. I would visit him when I came back from school.
One morning at 5 am, my sister started calling, and she was persistent. When I finally picked up the phone, she said our grandfather only had a couple of hours to live, and I had to come home right away to plan for the funeral and help out. I gathered my stuff quickly, sent out an email to my professors about what was going on, and left. I drove as fast as I could so I could reach him before he passed. He died as I was halfway home. My relatives told me that he fought to the very end. They told him it was okay to go, and that we would take care of our grandmother. He finally let go and left this world. Cancer took him from us. He was an Army veteran from World War II, a former uranium mine worker, and our grandfather.
Cancer took him from us. He was an Army veteran from World War II, a former uranium mine worker, and our grandfather.
We buried my grandfather in Copper Canyon, near his father—my great-grandfather. He wanted to be near his home and near his livestock. He felt at home in Copper Canyon. It took me a long time to go back into Copper Canyon and visit his gravesite. I eventually realized how important it was to educate myself about uranium exposure and the impact it has on my tribe, the Navajo Nation.
Learning the Extent of the Problem
In my masters and doctorate program, I got involved in uranium exposure research. I wanted to know more about it. At first, I wanted to help my relatives. But, the more I learned, the more I realized the extent of the problem. The Navajo Nation had over 1,000 abandoned uranium mines within the reservation. The abandoned uranium mines were operational from the 1940s to the 1980s – all during the Cold War era. As I researched other Navajo communities that had past uranium mining, I found they all had a similar story. They all had relatives that were former miners or lived nearby an abandoned uranium mine who died of cancer.
The map below of the Navajo Nation shows the locations of the abandoned uranium mines. The map also shows the water contamination. Navajo Nation lacks the public water infrastructure to provide water to their tribal members. Therefore, many of the rural isolated community members rely on unregulated water sources.
I recognize that the problem goes beyond the borders of the Navajo Nation. Other tribes such as the Havasupai and Sioux Nations are faced with the same problem. Both tribes are far apart from each other, but they are faced with the same issues as the Navajo Nation. I hear people talking about their exposures and the impact it has on their communities.
What Can Be Done?
The way people can help is by spreading my story. There are many stories similar to mine when it comes to uranium mining. We were not told of the harm it would do to us. The uranium contamination is in our water and in our environment, and we are waiting to see how uranium exposure is impacting the next generation.
Dr. Tommy Rock is a member of the Navajo Nation from Monument Valley, Utah. His clans are the Salt clan, born for the Manygoat clan; maternal grandfather’s clan is the Bitterwater clan and paternal grandfather’s clan is the Reed People clan. Many of Tommy's relatives were involved in uranium mining, and the resulting disproportionate health and environmental disparities motivated Tommy to pursue professional endeavors specializing in mitigating impacts of extractive industries on tribal lands. His work integrates issues of health, environment, and culture with informed decision-making on tribal lands.