A persistent cold

Former mine worker warns of 'the sickness' if uranium mining returns to Navajoland

By Marley Shebala, Navajo Times
April 12, 2007

MONUMENT VALLEY - To most people, Monument Valley is a majestic and mysterious handiwork of Mother Earth.

To the Diné, it was the home of the giants.

For 85-year-old Seth Bigman and his family, it was also their home.

The front door of his home opens to a picture postcard view of Monument Valley.

But the awesome beauty of his homeland holds a dark memory.

It has lingered in his mind for 50 years. But he does not readily share those memories until he hears about the global resurgence of the uranium industry.

The rising price of uranium has renewed national pressure on Navajo leaders to open their homeland - once again - to uranium mining and milling.

The Wall Street Journal reported that uranium was selling for $95 a pound at the end of March - 10 times higher than what it was five years ago.

Moneyweek magazine reported that the increasing value of uranium is because the demand "greatly outstrips" supplies.

Bigman said that he went to the hospital when he heard about the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

According to the U.S. RECA Web site, Congress passed the law on Oct. 5, 1990, to provide for "compassionate payments" to individuals who fell ill with cancer and other serious diseases as a result of exposure to radiation during above-ground nuclear weapons tests or while working in uranium mines.

The 1990 act provided payments in the following amounts: $50,000 to individuals residing or working "downwind" of the Nevada test site; $75,000 for workers participating in above-ground nuclear weapons tests; and $100,000 for uranium miners.

Bigman said that after his medical checkup, the doctor said "there was nothing wrong with my lungs. Because of that I didn't do anything. I just said thank you because I was told there was nothing wrong with me.

He said that after he mulled over the $100,000 payment, he figured that in the Navajo way if he continued to press for compensation that he was preparing himself to die.

"So I just stopped compensation process," he said. "I don't know if (uranium) really has affected me or if that's possible because ever since then I seem to be very susceptible to colds."

Bigman said his hacking cough, which his wife shares, was because of a prolonged cold.

He points to the south and recalls the names and locations of several mines and mills - Moonlight Mine, Starlight, Industrial Uranium Company, and VCA 1 and 2.

He does not remember what VCA stands for but he recalls that most of the mines were owned and operated by businesses headquartered in Salt Lake City.

He remembers how miners and millers finally learned, years after the operations closed, how deadly uranium is.

"And," he said, "there's no one to really speak on his behalf. It's just the doctors at the hospital but I don't know if they can handle it."

Bigman shakes his head as he recalls the cruel working conditions at VCA 1 and 2.

The Navajo boys in those two mines had it the worst because there was no ventilation, he said.

"Here we were very much in contact with uranium," he said. "We searched for uranium, using Geiger counters. And then we'd take uranium samples home. We had no choice. That's what we were instructed to do."

Bigman remembered that at a mine northwest of Goulding's Trading Post he and other Navajo workers hauled equipment on their backs to the mine site.

Bigman said the workers loaded uranium ore from the mine into gunnysacks that were tied shut with wire and then hooked onto a cable line.

He said the gunnysacks full of "rocks" would rocket down the cable line to a huge box at the bottom of a red rock, where it would "explode" into pieces, spraying dust over Navajo workers who were reloading it into other containers.

That's hoe the mine was operated in 1958 and 1959, he said.

Bigman shrugs his shoulders over whether his unusual number of colds is associated with his past uranium mining. .

But he said if uranium mining were restarted on the Navajo Reservation, the people would go through "the sickness."

"You can't help but think like that," he said. "It seems like there was a lot of deception surrounding the jobs. Back then there was no information about how radiation is harmful. Nothing. It's like sending or allowing this sickness into the people.

"If someone had said, 'It's like this, this will harm you. This is a disease,' we might not have worked," Bigman said. "But the company and the Navajo Nation government from Window Rock were saying, "'Give me, give me, give me money.' It's like they were saying to us, 'Sacrifice your own relatives for money.'"

He sighed and added, "I haven't heard anyone honestly talking about that or advocating for the victims, the miners, their families and the medicine men and women whose ceremonies have been destroyed."

Bigman is Tódich'ii'nii (Bitter Water clan), born for Yé'ii dine'é Táchii,nii (The Giant People of the Red Running Into the Water People clan). His cheii are Kinlichii'nii (Red House clan). His nali are Hashk'aa hadzohi (Yucca Fruit Strung Out In a LIne clan).

For further reading on the subject of the effects of uranium mining, more can be found in The Navajo People and Uranium Mining, edited by Doug Brugge, Timothy Benally, and Esther Yazzie-Lewis.

Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html