CUREJ - College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal

Uranium Mining on the Navajo Indian Reservation: An Environmental Examination of the Process and Impact

Caitlin A. McElroy, University of Pennsylvania

Division: Natural Sciences

Dept/Program: Environmental Studies

Document Type: Undergraduate Student Research

Mentor(s): Robert Giegengack

Date of this Version: 01 June 2006

This document has been peer reviewed.



Uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation created an environmental justice disaster which has strangely helped bring the Navajo Nation to achieve considerable self-determination within the United States.

The United States’ need for uranium to fuel the nuclear weapons and energy program brought the Atomic Energy Commission to establish an extensive mining operation on Southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Many of mines established were on or near the Navajo Indian reservation. The Navajo Nation received little share in the profits due to poorly constructed lease and royalty contracts. What is more, most mines employed almost entirely Navajo men who were never told of the known health hazards from radiation expose. The Navajo people were desperate to work, the AEC was driven to produce uranium as quickly as possible, and the mining companies working for the AEC wanted the largest possible profits. Despite pressure from the Public Health Service (PHS), who had been gathering data revealing dangerous levels of radiation exposure, no regulations were imposed for nearly thirty years. By this time, health problems predicted by PHS were coming true and uranium workers were dying of cancers and lung diseases. The horror of this spreading sickness spurred the Navajo people to act and fight for justice. After a long battle they finally achieved acknowledgment that the U.S. government had negligently failed to protect the health of uranium miners. The testimonies of the miners, their widows and their families tell heartbreaking tales of the anger, frustration and sadness the Navajo people have experienced because they felt they were betrayed by the government, lost family members and were left to live in toxic environments. However, fueled by this range of emotions the Navajo Nation has changed significantly. The Tribal Council has asserted authority in the creation of new leases and regulations to ensure the Navajo people benefit from the extraction of their natural resources. Individuals worked to unite communities in the fight for justice and respect. Navajo government organizations such as the office of Abandoned Mine Lands have even set new standards for reclamation and community redevelopment projects. While circumstances at the start of uranium mining were perfect to enable the exploitation of the Navajo people, new circumstances created by changes in National policy and Navajo initiates have made the Navajo Nation a more wary and self-determined nation. Unfortunately, this long awaited goal and respected sovereignty has come at a very high price.

Suggested Citation

McElroy, Caitlin A., "Uranium Mining on the Navajo Indian Reservation: An Environmental Examination of the Process and Impact" 01 June 2006. CUREJ: College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, University of Pennsylvania,

Date Posted: 11 December 2007

This document has been peer reviewed.




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