There was a boom in uranium mining in the late 1940s and early 1950s, its main impetus being the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The idea was to build bigger and better nuclear bombs to psych the enemy out, not that we really wanted to use them. Just have them. Just in case.
Between 1953 and 1980, the United States was the world’s leading producer of uranium. There were active mines in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. In the late 70s, the profitability of uranium mines dropped sharply, and many mines were closed. Very recently, the price of uranium has risen again, and companies are getting interested in mining it once again.
In the early years, radiation hazards were not well understood, and miners did not wear protective gear, so they were exposed to very high levels of radiation. Inhalation of radon gas caused sharp increases in lung cancers among underground uranium miners in the 1940s and 1950s, and a statistical correlation between cancer and uranium mining was found in 1962.
In South Dakota, uranium was discovered in 1954 near the town of Edgemont, in the western part of the state, along the southern edge of the Black Hills. Mining began almost immediately, and continued until 1964, when the mines were closed. The large mining companies chopped off the tops of buttes and bluffs to get at the ore in open-pit mines. Even individual ranchers nearby dug around looking for uranium on their own property. There are still over 100 abandoned open-pit uranium mines in South Dakota alone. Studies show that one mine alone has 1800 mR of exposed radiation with no warning signs posted for the general public at the entrance. These abandoned mines are regulated by the US Forest Service.
Water runoff from these abandoned mines runs into the Grand River, which winds through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Three villages use water from this river for drinking, cooking, and other domestic purposes. There is also water runoff from abandoned mines that runs into the Morreau River, which runs through the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Four villages are situated along this river. Abandoned mines abound near Edgemont, in southwestern South Dakota, and these have polluted the underground water table that runs through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
According to a report published in 2005 by the American Journal of Public Health, cancer rates among the Lakota people in South Dakota “have significantly higher age-adjusted rates of cancer mortality than the general US population.” Specifically, the rates were higher for colorectal cancer (58% higher than for the general U.S. population), lung cancer (62% higher), cervical cancer (79% higher), and prostate cancer (49% higher).
The report talks about the fact that the Natives have very distances to travel in order to get medical treatment, that there are not adequate screening programs, that the Natives are too poor to afford treatment, and so forth, but nowhere does it mention that their water is probably contaminated by radiation.
Radiation warning signs were posted in July, 2007 in the small town of Red Shirt, South Dakota which lies on the northwest corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Several signs were placed to warn people of the high nuclear radiation levels found in the Cheyenne River.
“We sampled the river with nets for aquatic life and found only 2 crayfish and about 10 minnows in more than 100 yards of the river. In essence, it’s a dead river. There are two endangered species that use this River: the Sturgeon chubb, a small fish, and the Bald Eagle,” explained Charmaine White Face, founder and Coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills.
“…more than forty years of mining have released radioactive polluted dust and water runoff from the hundreds of abandoned open-pit uranium mines, processing sites, underground nuclear power stations, and waste dumps. Our grain supplies and our livestock production in this area have used the water and have been exposed to the remainders of this mining. We may be seeing global effects, not just localized effects, to the years of uranium mining,” she said.
In January 2007, Powertech Uranium Corporation, a Canadian company, wanted to start up mining again near Edgemont, using a process known as in situ leaching, which is allowed by law in South Dakota. However, the Devenders of the Black Hills and others have mounted a campaign to halt any renewed uranium mining in the Black Hills because of its effect on Native American and wildlife populations, as well as the effects of mining on the water table and local ranchers. Indigenous leaders and anti-nuclear activists are still opposing Powertech’s bid to mine uranium in the area. Talks have dragged on for many years.
In September of this year, it was reported that the South Dakota State Medical Association has come out against the proposed uranium mining in Fall River County for the following reasons, quoted from the report in the Black Hills Pioneer:
• The “real possibility of underground water-supply contamination with radionuclides and other heavy metals exists” due to potential communication between the mined Inyan Kara aquifer and other aquifers.
• Records of other ISL uranium mines detailing “frequent unanticipated consequences due to leaks and excursions of mining fluids.”
• The acceptance by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that “the restoration of an ISL-mined aquifer to pre-mining water quality is … an impossibility.”
• The risk that “routine features of such mines, such as settling ponds and surface spraying of treated water,” could result in “ground and atmospheric contamination with radioactive and otherwise toxic elements.”
• The potential for bioaccumulation of these toxic elements in crops and grazing livestock.
• The notion that “Any (underscore SDSMA’s) increase in human radiation exposure above background levels is believed to be associated with a linearly increased risk of adverse health consequences, including increased incidence of cancer, birth defects, and other diseases.”
• The group’s assertion that “the loss of large volumes of water in such mining operations is not in the public interest” when “considering the projected future scarcity of uncontaminated fresh water in our semi-arid region.”
Another Indigenous population has also got some of the same problems due to uranium mines: the Navajo people also have inflated rates of cancer, particularly stomach cancer. The Los Angeles Times did an amazing article back in November 2006 about how uranium mining has affected one Navajo family. You can read it here.
According to Andreas Knudsen, “Native communities, primarily in the western US, have been chronically exposed to low doses of radiation for over forty years. This exposure derives from the many nuclear activities on indigenous lands such as uranium mining and milling, uranium conversion and enrichment, and testing of nuclear weapons. More than one half of all US uranium deposits lie under reservation land. In the past, the Secretary of the Interior was authorized to lease tribal mineral resources for national defense purposes. In return for mining rights, the large energy consortiums have historically paid royalty fees and employed Indians in substandard working conditions.”
Native Americans bear an inordinate share of the burden when it comes to the negative effects of nuclear energy. If uranium mining had affected more white communities, would we have taken a closer look at the correlation between uranium mining and cancer?