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Uranium Mining in Arizona: Mining and the Navajo Tribal People

Updated on February 20, 2017
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John is a retired math teacher who is involved in many activities. He writes, builds model ships, gardens, reads, and prospects for gold.

A Mysterious Beginning

As early as the 18th century, uranium was known for emitting green and yellow hues. When mixed with glass, its fluorescent effects are quite striking. Dating to 79 AD, uranium oxide (what you get after the milling and processing of uranium ore) has been found in some Italian glass. Of course, its chemical properties were not known. Today, uranium plays a huge role in our national economy, and a significant role in Arizona's economy.

Silvery gray metallic; corrodes to a spalling black oxide coat in air
Silvery gray metallic; corrodes to a spalling black oxide coat in air | Source
A markerCarrizo Mountains, Arizona -
Carrizo Mountains, Arizona 86514, USA
get directions

Carrizo Mountains (36°50' N, 109°7'W) small, mostly circular mountain range 15 -20 km (9 to 12 miles)diameter located on the Colorado Plateau

Depleted uranium is used by various militaries as high-density penetrators
Depleted uranium is used by various militaries as high-density penetrators | Source

Uranium mining has taken place in Arizona ever since 1918. Before the uranium boom in the 1940s, uranium was basically a by-product gotten as a result of vanadium mining and mining of the mineral called camotite. Digging for uranium started in 1918 in the Carrizo Mountains. This small cirular mountain range containing 70-74 million year old rock is located on the Navajo Nation. It is located in Apache County in the northeastern corner of Arizona.

Uranium and vanadium naturally occur as camotite in sandstone. Production of vanadium, and even uranium, was stopped temporarily in 1921. The mining would then resume in 1941 and run up to 1966 within that time producing 360,000 pounds of uranium oxide.

Monument Valley

In addition to the west being featured in many western films by John Ford, Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border, cradles uranium deposits that were once critical to the atomic program in the 40s.

Though uranium was discovered by the Navajo in 1942, the first mine was opened in 1948 and continued to produce the radioactive material until 1969. Other Indian sites mined until the late 70s when the atomic weapons program of the United States began to ebb.

In total, Arizona produced 8.7 million pounds of uranium oxide. Up to the 1980s, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming had operative mines. In the 1970s and 1980s price declines forced mine closures in all of these states.

Mines in Arizona Historic Activities

Men from the local communities, which were mainly comprised of American Indians, were used to mine uranium ore mainly for US atomic weapons manufacture. When the mining activities ceased in the late 1970s, the operators abandoned the mines. They however did not seal tunnel openings, fill gaping pits, or remove the piles of radio-active ore and mining wastes.

It is because of these acts of negligence that the locals on the Navajo reservation were exposed to extreme levels of radioactivity. For instance, a 1959 report found that radiation levels were 90 times more than the acceptable limits. Among the 150 Navajo miners who used to work in the mines until 1970, 133 died of cancer a result of lung cancer and various forms of fibrosis.

Yet at the time, many Navajo viewed their participation in mining a patriotic endeavor during the cold war. The mines also provided good paying jobs, sometimes to multiple members of families. The biggest uranium fields were discovered on the Colorado Plateau in the Southwest, including the Navajo Nation, where more than 1,000 mines were built. The fact that the mining operations were originally welcomed for noble reasons makes the situation more difficult.

This means that even after mining activities had ceased in the Navajo Nation, the legacy of environmental degradation and associated harm continued to take effect. The most significant release of radioactive materials in United States history took place in 1979 when the dam at Church Rock burst. At this time 1100 tons of radioactive wastes and contaminated liquids poured down the Rio Puerco River towards Arizona. Navajo land has suffered as a result of even recent mining activities. Hence, there is a sensitivity to mining in the Indian community.

It is also worth noting that Navajo uranium mining has since been banned by the local government.




Monument Valley

Monument Valley mesa, with cliffs of De Chelly Sandstone
Monument Valley mesa, with cliffs of De Chelly Sandstone | Source

What happened when Dr Frankenstein swallowed some uranium?

He got atomic ache.

Current and Future Uranium mining activities in Arizona

Ten areas have since been identified by the Arizona Department of Mines and Mineral Resources (ADMMR) and they are mainly grouped within general landforms. These landforms include:

1· Colorado plateau

2· Basin/ Range Province

3· Transition Zone

According to ADMMR, Arizona has a high potential for development of various uranium resources. According to the ADMMR projections, if mining was to continue at the same rate as 1980, by the year 2000, well over 100 million pounds of new mineral will be realized.

A recent state of resurgence in interest in the uranium industry has mainly been sparked by the increase in uranium prices. For instance, the current prices are up from a low of 7 USD per pound in the year 1990 to about 120 USD per pound as at June 2007. In the past couple of years, the acquisition of uranium properties in Arizona increased with well over 25 companies reporting claims or acquisition staking targets.

Have you ever been to Monument Valley?

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Economic impact of uranium mining in Arizona

Uranium mines have a significant impact on the economy of not only Northern Arizona but also the larger United States. Job opportunities in the economically ravaged towns like Colorado City have become quite enormous in recent times. During the 1980s and the 1990s, the town, as well as Kanab, Arizona and Fredonia saw a reduction in the level of poverty in the region thanks to the wages that the laborers got from the mines and other mining associated jobs.

Some people might want to argue that uranium mining has a negative impact on tourism but this is not always the case. In fact, the state of the tourism industry has never dwindled even after the start of mining activities. Previous mining in ten separate mines has really had no detectable impact on tourism. On the contrary however, the orphan mine in the Grand Canyon Park is a major tourist attraction and doubles up as a symbol of the powerful attraction that brought earlier settlers westward.

The Orphan mining claim was initially made in 1893 by prosecutor Dan Hogan- the man who discovered copper on the southern wall of the Grand Canyon. This was 1100 feet under the rim. After having served as a rough-rider in the Spanish-American war, Hogan returned to prospecting. In 1906, Hogan filed a mining claim on the orphan mine and his old commandant Roosevelt signed the claim himself.

Massive, fallen Shinarump Conglomerate block - Canyon De Chelly
Massive, fallen Shinarump Conglomerate block - Canyon De Chelly | Source

Most recent developments on uranium mining in the Navajo Indian land

On the 11th of July 2000, President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, signed into law a radiation exposure compensation act (RECA). The legislation has since failed to bring down cases of infections and health problems brought about by uranium mining activities.

In the western and northern Carizzo Mountains next to Cove in Arizona, uranium mining started in 1948 and then would peak between 1955 and 1956. However, mining activities in Arizona declined there in 1967.

In the modern-day, uranium mining activities in Arizona are still clearly seen. Even with legislation intended at protecting the rights of the locals, many miners are still taking on the activity in disregard of the law. Many people are still suffering lung cancer as a result of residing next to mining activity.

Therefore, there is no way we can choose to overlook the importance of mines in Arizona and the role they play in the American economy. Arizona is the only part of the United States where uranium mining has persisted for many years now and definitely the trend will not end any time soon. The deposits might get depleted at times, but still, research locates new deposits and provides lucrative jobs.

Mining activities in Arizona have significantly contributed to the economic growth of the region and the betterment of the lives of the local people. For most of the residents, mining activities have been a positive part of their lives, and thus for them, mining is accepted as part of their day to day life.

What did one uranium-238 nucleus say to the other?

Gotta split!

The Future Economic Impact of Uranium on Arizona

Today, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is being surveyed via the air using a system that can trace radiation from brecchia pipes, veins of a material running with copper that are radioactive. There is an estimate out there that over 200 million pounds of U308 could be harvested from these sites.

A mine, close to the South Rim, the Canyon Mine, has produced uranium since the 40s. Energy Fuels Resources has been successful in court to open the Canyon mine again. Facilities at the mine are being expanded in an effort to produce over 1 1/2 million pounds of uranium. Huge trucks will haul big loads to a mill in Utah.

It is safe to say that uranium will play a significant economic benefit to the state and to the future of nuclear energy.

Uranium glass glowing under UV light
Uranium glass glowing under UV light | Source
Cove, Arizona
Cove, Arizona

© 2014 John R Wilsdon

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