Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed

Nov 18, 2010

My dad was once given a peculiar assignment. He was working for the VCA the Vanadium Corporation of America in Durango, Colorado. The VCA had been mining and milling uranium in Colorado, Utah, and throughout the Navajo Nation since the late 30s. In 1962, they shut down the Durango mill and transferred my father to the reservation. They were leaving a huge pile of tailings nestled against Smelter Mountain right by the Animas River. For years, Durangoans had complained about the fine pink and many thought radioactive sand that blew over the town.

To silence complaints, the company decided to seed the pile with grass. My dad got the job overseeing the planting. For a few years after that, before they finally moved the tailings, the ugly pink pile was a pretty grassy knoll that made Geiger counters chatter.

We could say those were the days of innocence, when nobody really knew what the fallout would be from harvesting uranium domestically. But in her illuminating new book, Yellow Dirt, Judy Pasternak questions whether there was ever true innocence regarding health risks and lax safety standards in uranium mining.

In 1939 the VCA contracted with the government to deliver uranium for the Manhattan Project. For her book, Pasternak did extensive research showing that in those early years, the government's own safety inspectors cautioned about health hazards in the mines, but again and again, in the interest of national security, warnings were quashed.

Pasternak ends her book with chilling statistical evidence for an epidemic of cancer, birth defects and other devastating fallout on the reservation. She begins it, though, with the story of a family. Before the VCA opened a vein just northeast of Monument Valley, Hosteen Adakai's family was there raising sheep. And it's the oral history collected from this extended family that makes the book so affecting. We learn about Navajo children playing in the tailings piles left after the mines closed. We learn how resourceful farmers salvaged the sand to make adobe bricks, where they lived in radiating houses for years.

I have read many books about uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation. This is the first I've read that delivers such an extensive, well-researched history in thoroughly compelling prose.