Flint is just the Beginning: Navajo Nation’s Water Crisis
by Kuranda Kasatka
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has drawn national attention to an issue most communities of color have realized all too long ago. There are systematical inequalities in the way the U.S government reacts to public health issues, all depending on the demographics of the populations they effect. Poor neighborhoods with high minority compositions are all too often the victims of environmental justice issues. Environmental justice shows that social inequalities, such as socioeconomic status and race, are compounded by each other. The story of Flint isn’t the anomaly. If anything it’s a moderate case of the norm. The most marginalized communities (both racially and economically) are disproportionately more affected by issues of environmental quality enforcement.
What if I were to tell you there was an even worse instance of water crisis in the U.S? You’d never know since it still hasn’t caught the attention of national spotlight despite it being much more severe. Navajo Nation has experienced prolonged water inequality. Victims of one catastrophe after another. Indian reservations in the US have tribal sovereignty, which makes them technically not part of the United States. The federal government regards these tribal lands as quasi-sovereign “domestic dependent nations”, meaning the infrastructure and environmental regulations are regulated through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and that individual tribe. Consequently, they are not factored into the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and their populations are not included in statistics. A possible solution would be to fund the BIA so they are able to effectively monitor quality, or amend the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to include domestic dependent nations.
In the late 1940s the United States chose to cut their dependence on foreign sources of uranium. The Navajo’s territory became a prime domestic resource. The Navajo were exploited from the start. Impoverished natives no choice but to take jobs in the mines. Serving as fuel (literally) for a nuclear USA in the Cold War era, the Navajo were kept completely ignorant, cut off from general public knowledge because of language or educational barriers. The Navajo had no concept of radiation or the dangers of radioactive waste. They had no idea of the long term risks. In fact, there isn’t even a Navajo word for radiation. People drank, washed their clothes, cooked, swam, and bathed using contaminated water. They also didn’t waste any radioactive waste by disposing of it. They were told it was a good concrete substitute, and used the waste to build homes and pave roads.
Native Americans of Arizona and New Mexico could not vote until 1948, which means they were not considered when water rights were being designated. In 1950 the U.S Public Health Service, without asking for consent from participants, started a study to observe the relationship between toxic byproducts in uranium mines and lung cancer. They also failed to divulge any of their findings to the Navajo people. Also at this time coal fired power plants and mines added to the water contamination. In the 1960s Navajo Nation began experiencing the health effects of radiation full stop, as the number of lung and other cancer cases began to skyrocket.
In 1979 in Gallup, NM, a dam broke at the United Nuclear Corporation Mill, unleashing over 1000 tons of solid radioactive nuclear mill waste into the Puerco River, distributing the waste over 80 miles downstream to Navajo Nation.  This happened less than four months after Three Mile Island. It actually released over three times the amount of radiation, making it the largest nuclear spill in U.S history. Thirty years later the waste is still highly radioactive and it even created a birth defect unique to Navajo Nation, referred to as “Navajo neuropathy”.
Forty years since opening and approximately forty million tons of extracted uranium ore later, 1300 uranium mines lay abandoned on Navajo soil. Over 500 exhibit elevated levels of radiation.
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