But the relatively unassuming mesa played a vital Cold War role for the U.S. government, supplying uranium for atomic bombs. And to the Navajos who have dwelt for generations at its base, it is the wounded center of their world.
The cleanup of the old mine at the summit was supposed to be complete; it had even won a national award and was open for grazing and hiking. But my companions wanted to show me the hundreds of small rocks with bright yellow stripes that littered the terrain. When I placed the detector against one, my machine started to chirp and the needle took a smooth swing to the right. Uranium. The harsh winds and a long drought had exposed it once more.
But the uranium wasn't just at the mine and surrounding landscape. Its radiation had lodged deep in the lungs of miners and millers who worked, barefaced and in moccasins, through the Cold War to protect Americans from the Russians. Decades passed between the time the mining company shut down operations and the first attempts at repairing the damage.
In those intervening years, Navajos had used the waste ore, nicely squared off by the blasting, to build foundations, fireplaces and bread ovens. They mixed the sandy tailings from the processing facility into nice, smooth concrete for floors and stucco walls. The rain poured through the tailings pile and into the groundwater underneath, contaminating the aquifer. Navajos had been famous for their low cancer rates, but 20 years after the height of the uranium boom, well within the typical latency period, cancer death rates mysteriously doubled.
I wrote a series in 2006 for my newspaper about the slow-motion environmental catastrophe that the mining had unleashed on the Navajo homeland. Yazzie Mesa was only a small part of the story: On a reservation the size of West Virginia, there were more than 1,000 abandoned tunnels, shafts and pit mines, and communities near each of them that suffered. But the settlement and the people I met there stayed in my mind.
Then I learned two things: The mine at Yazzie Mesa, Monument No. 2, had been the hottest, richest, most productive uranium mine in the Navajo Nation. And the patriarch who settled the valley had warned his children not to show the "yellow dirt" to white men. I wanted to tell the story of what happened there, from the beginning to the present day. I wanted to include the scandal of how the miners were misled, but also relate how the newspaper series had launched a hopeful momentum, including a congressional hearing and a new federal effort for restitution.
I wanted to give rare voice to individual Navajos who lived and died with uranium, and to show the human beings who were affected by decisions made far away. I discovered oral histories and depositions that allowed the mining men to tell about their experiences as well. With all of these elements in hand, I was able to piece together a tale of betrayal, neglect and reckoning that is also a history of America's changing relationship with a sovereign tribe, in a little-known country within our country.
The result is my book "Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed," and here's an excerpt chronicling the fateful days when mine operators realized the awesome uranium yield potential at Yazzie Mesa -- a discovery that was to have ominous consequences decades later.
"A Hundred Tons a Day"
In the spring of 1950, Denny Viles, the western field director for the Vanadium Corporation of America, drove up to a company mine north of Durango, Colo., and asked a 30-year-old up-and-comer named Bob Anderson if he'd like to take a trip. Anderson naturally said yes to the boss. He'd been the first foreman in VCA history to keep a crew working up in the mountain deep-snow country all winter long. He assumed that Viles was planning to reward him with a pleasant excursion.
A few days later, Viles and Anderson drove down from the high green Rockies until they crossed the reservation border to the brown Indian lands. By noon they had covered 170 miles and arrived at Monument No. 2. Anderson was too preoccupied at first with internal concerns to focus on the strange, spectacular desert landscape; hunger was beginning to scrape at him, and the realization was dawning that he faced a six-hour drive back from this godforsaken place before he would eat his next meal. He vowed to himself that, in the future, he would always pack a lunch whenever he traveled with Denny Viles.
At the end of the hike, Viles asked, "What do you think of it, Bob?"
"It's a beautiful mine," the young man replied.
Viles didn't care about that. "Do you think you can make a hundred tons a day out of there?"
"I don't have any idea, but if it produces ore like it is today, I don't see any reason why we couldn't make a hundred ton a day out of it."
Viles turned to Bell, the superintendent. "Well, Bob will be in contact with you," he announced. "He's in charge here now."
Shortly afterward, Denny Viles' new regional director took the bumpy dirt road back to Monument No. 2. Carl Bell was taking a vacation, and Anderson would run the place while he was gone.
This was a whole new world, and Anderson felt lost there. Most of the Navajos looked alike to him. He could pick out only two very old men from the crowd. The mesa itself was also impossible to read. Viles was not one for exploratory drilling; he didn't care to spend the money.
So Anderson had no solid information about likely hot spots and wasn't quite sure what to do with his crowd of identical laborers. He started two or three of them digging in one arbitrary place, then another two or three in another and so on, until he had spread them all across the VCA claim.
When he brought the time book around and asked, "What's your name?" most of the men appeared not to understand. One of them handed him a grocery bill.
He figured that under these circumstances, someone was bound to sneak off and still try to collect a day's pay, and by sheer luck it turned out to be one of those distinctive old men. By 9 a.m., Anderson noticed that he was missing, and when he asked around, nobody seemed to know where the truant was.
On Day Two, Anderson spotted the man arriving and asked, "What did you do yesterday?" With gestures the old Navajo made his excuses; it seemed that he'd had a headache.
Anderson berated him: "I'm going to dock you for the full day, and if you ever do that again, I'm going to fire you. If you get sick or anything else, you have to tell somebody that you're going to go, because we thought maybe you might be hurt."
Anderson started to walk away, but the Navajo miner came up close and shook a finger at him. "Dona Shawna," he said; at least that's the way Anderson heard it. The new boss asked a different worker what the man was saying. The other miner obligingly translated: "He's calling you a mean, bad man."
The Navajos continued testing their new overseer. Anderson assigned a driller to make a pattern of 6-foot holes in a wall of rock so that enough dynamite could be packed inside to blast the ore to bits. He thought the job would take a day and a half. But that evening, there was already a hole everyplace he'd wanted a hole. The interim superintendent was no pushover; he picked up a 6-foot steel rod and jabbed it inside to gauge the length. The resulting shock almost tore his arm off. The openings were all too short, each just about 2 feet long.
When Carl Bell, the local foreman, returned from his travels, Anderson told him what had happened. "If you want to rehire him, why go ahead, I don't care. I just couldn't let him get away with it."
Bell grinned. "Aw, he's getting pretty fat. We'll let him stay off for a month or two and thin down a little bit."
For all that, Anderson was coming to respect the Navajos in his employ. They weren't lazy, he realized. Quite the opposite. They simply paced themselves differently from Anglos, Anderson thought. A typical Anglo miner worked fast through the morning and was tuckered out by late afternoon, reduced to cruising around the site and chatting with his friends. A Navajo was slower but steady, just as good at 4:30 p.m. as he was at 8:00 a.m. You probably get the same amount of work out of both, he concluded. He believed that the Navajos were perfectly suited to the hand-sorting practiced at Monument No. 2. They were patient and had very sharp eyes.
Anderson made one more change during Bell's absence, and this one would prove much more momentous, although it didn't seem so at the time. In one tunnel, a tramway for the mining cars that hauled the ore out to the surface ran right past an area that was dotted with uranium, but had never been worked. He decided to set off a few rounds of TNT to see what was behind the wall of rock. By the time his stint was nearly up, he had 30 people working on a streak of ore just an inch wide. Before he headed back to Durango, he and Bell shared a laugh about that too.
But the crew kept at it, and on his next trip, Anderson saw that the little stripe was growing wider. On the trip after that, the men were blasting from a seam a full 35 feet across, and it ran clear through the property, 600 feet from the South Rim close to the North.
They had stumbled on the hidden heart of Yazzie Mesa. Entombed for all these decades under the herbs and berries used in powders and potions by Adakai, the local patriarch, under the brush nibbled by the sheep, under the water collected by Adakai's son, a gigantic mass had been constantly transforming like the evil shape-shifters of Navajo lore. The miners had been working mere capillaries; these were major arteries. Now VCA was intent on freeing the long, thick channels of leetso -- the Navajo word for uranium, literally "yellow dirt" -- with the help of the men of Cane Valley. This lode of uranium could save the country. And it could make a fortune.
Anderson's superiors all brushed off the earnest young chemist's warnings and so Anderson did too. He knew that Monument No. 2 had one of the poorest ventilation records, but the mine had "pretty much a slave labor type of thing over there," Anderson thought, and why bother messing with a good thing? Though Duncan Holaday had pointedly noted that cancer was certain to hit the miners, he'd also said that it could take 10 years or more for the disease to show up. That wasn't a very compelling argument to Denny Viles. He was not one to worry about the long run.
Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, is published today by Free Press and available here.
© 2010 by Judy Pasternak