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About Utah: Only one side told in mining expose

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 27 2010 12:28 a.m. MDT

A new book on an old theme — the white man's abuse of Native Americans — has just hit the market.

But "Yellow Dirt" by journalist Judy Pasternak isn't about events that happened back when Kit Carson rode the range and the West was won — or lost, depending on your allegiances and feelings about land rights.

Her story is about the effects of uranium mining during the 1940s, '50s and '60s on Navajos.

Utahns will recognize the landmarks and the history Pasternak writes about — since the boundaries of the Navajo reservation spill over the four corners of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

If you were to drive to Goulding's Lodge on the Utah side of Monument Valley you very well might run into one or more of the book's main characters.

It was on Navajo land not far from Goulding's that significant uranium lodes were discovered during the uranium boom.

Pasternak's research, which began with a four-part series published in the Los Angeles Times in 2006, details the exploitation of these rich uranium finds by the federal government and private mining companies.

The Navajos weren't paid what the mines were worth, they weren't adequately warned about the dangers of working around and living amid radioactive materials, and the mines and mills were not sufficiently cleaned up when the boom was over.

Not only did the Navajos toil in conditions with few safety precautions, they also unsuspectingly took radioactive tailings home with them and used the toxic material to build the walls and foundations of their homes.

It's a tale of people who until the 1940s were virtually free of cancer — a disease the Navajo call lood doo nadziihii, "the sore that does not heal" — and now have a cancer rate about the same as the rest of us.

"Yellow Dirt" will definitely not be filed in the "heartwarming" category of the bookstore.

And yet, for all of Pasternak's mountains of anecdotal evidence and her almost palpable outrage, the book falls flat precisely because of those mountains and that outrage.

She fails to tell the other side.

Her book is as one-sided as those old cowboy-and-Indians movies where the cowboys ride the white horses.

Only in this case the roles have been reversed.

In Pasternak's world, all Native Americans are dignified, stoic, respectful and victims. And all white men — with the exception of a few whistle-blowers who are constantly disregarded and dismissed — are greedy, exploitative, heartless and victimizers.

Beyond the cartoon-like stereotyping, her most glaring lack of balance is what she chooses not to illuminate.

Namely, that what the federal government and the mine companies did in exploiting and failing to protect the Navajo it also did to the white man.

At first, World War II, when uranium was sorely needed to see if atomic bombs would work, and then the Cold War, when uranium was even more sorely needed because they did, took precedence over workplace safety.

And after that, when the mines shut down because everyone (except, perhaps, Iraq) had enough uranium, apathy set in, leaving tailings — and radon gas — hanging around like old rubber tires.

The Navajo sites weren't alone in their neglect. Consider that it was only last year that the government got around to moving the mess of tailings next to the Colorado River in Moab.

It took time for the government to realize all its sins of omission.

But by 1990, hindsight had provided enough clarity to forge the passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), the well-known "downwinders" legislation sponsored by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

In addition to compensating injured parties living downwind of nuclear testing in Nevada, RECA awards $100,000 to uranium miners, mill workers and ore transporters circa 1952-1970 experiencing any of 27 different medical conditions.

To date, 5,984 such claims have been paid to the tune of some $700 million. Many Native Americans are among the claimants.

Pasternak gives the compensation program exactly one line in her book — and no details.

Her preference is to concentrate on the injustice, not the justice, however delayed. "Yellow Dirt" is selective journalism at its finest.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.

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