Book review: 'Yellow Dirt'

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Studded with vivid character sketches and evocative descriptions of the American landscape, journalist Judy Pasternak's scarifying account of uranium mining's disastrous consequences often reads like a novel — though you will wish that the bad guys got punished as effectively as they do in commercial fiction. Real life is complicated, and Pasternak, a veteran of 24 years with the Los Angeles Times, does justice to the historical and ethical ambiguities of her tale while crafting a narrative of exemplary clarity.

The story she tells in "Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed" is every bit as grim as the muckraking subtitle suggests, despite a few heartening developments sparked by Pasternak's prizewinning 2006 series of investigative articles in The Times. Her book expands on that series' exposé of the way private industry mined on Navajo land in the Four Corners region of the West, disregarding worker safety in a rush to meet the U.S. government's aggressive demand for uranium — first to build the atom bombs that ended World War II, then for the Cold War arms race.

When demand slackened in the 1960s, companies like the Vanadium Corporation of America closed the mines and returned the land to the Navajos, but by no means "in as good condition as received," as the tribe's 1943 contract with VCA specified. The corporation left behind piles of radioactive waste and abandoned pit mines that filled with water and became "lakes." The Navajo mixed cement from the sandy waste to build houses; cattle and people, including pregnant women, drank from the contaminated lakes.

By 1960, medical studies indicated that the men who worked in the mines had elevated rates of cancer, especially lung cancer. By 1981, researchers were concerned about increased numbers of miscarriages and birth defects among Navajo women, higher than normal rates of cancer in Navajo teens and a mysterious condition called "Navajo neuropathy." Its young victims suffered liver damage, dimmed vision, fingers and toes that stiffened and fused together; most were dead by the age of 10. The entire community, not just miners, suffered from exposure to leetso (yellow dirt), the Navajo word for uranium.

As Pasternak reveals in shaming detail, public health officials had been warning about the health hazards of uranium mining and urging safeguards since 1948, only to be fired or muzzled by the Atomic Energy Commission. Once the results of this carelessness became impossible to deny by the late 1960s, a depressingly predictable saga ensued of buck-passing, stonewalling and official obfuscation.

Pasternak chronicles the whole sorry affair with a thoroughness and flair that won her manuscript the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. Understanding that a human focus makes a vast disaster more accessible and understandable, she concentrates on four generations of a single family in Cane Valley, an area on the Arizona- Utah border where VCA mined its richest uranium lode. Navajo patriarch Adakai adamantly opposed any plundering of Mother Earth; his son Luke led VCA to the ore; his granddaughter Juanita died of cancer at 59, convinced that leetso had killed her; his great-granddaughter Lorissa made a documentary film, "Hear Our Voices," about the tribe's history with uranium and its ongoing impact.

"A family passed from instinctive dread to betrayal, from betrayal to unwitting destruction, from destruction to a modern understanding," writes Pasternak, stretching for a hint of redemption. This isn't terribly comforting, nor is the knowledge that the Navajos ultimately got some redress — after more than 30 years of lawsuits and increasingly desperate appeals for help. Pasternak's articles about their efforts prompted U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform) to hold hearings in 2007 that finally goaded the various federal agencies that had so scandalously neglected their regulatory duties to draft a five-year cleanup program and actually implement it.

No one who has read to this point in Pasternak's sorrowfully knowing book will be under any illusions that the program can wholly undo damage inflicted by decades of toxic pollution. But nuclear power is once again on the national energy agenda, uranium companies claim that new mining techniques are much safer, and a recent New Yorker article about a proposed uranium processing mill in Colorado suggests that hard-up locals who need jobs are willing to believe them. "Yellow Dirt" sounds a cautionary note we still need to hear.

Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

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