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SHIPROCK — The book begins much the same as did the betrayal of the Navajo people during the boom of Cold War-era uranium mining — with Anglo men creeping onto its pages like poison.

The book is "Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed."

Its author is Judy Pasternak, a former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

Its story, based on two years of research, unfolds with a clarity spared from the Navajo miners who were never told that the "yellow dirt" they mined would be a devastating character in the tale of the Diné people.

"The white men first showed up in the summer of 1943," Pasternak wrote in the prologue to her book. "They came from the north, from Colorado, in teams of half a dozen each, hunkered down in trucks until the roads ran out. Then they switched to horses, riding into the silent reaches of the Navajo reservation, leaving their own country behind though they were still within its borders.

"They entered a place that seemed mystical and wild, where the residents spoke little or no English and only a few could write their names, where medicine men chanted and sifted colored sand, and witches were said to haunt the deep night along with coyotes and bears."

The land the Anglo men encountered was much different than it is today, Pasternak found.

The men, Pasternak reported, were part of a fictional company called Union Mines Development Corp.


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In reality, the men were looking for — and finding — uranium, a prize that would change the course of history and contribute to the atom bomb, the most destructive war weapon imaginable.

The even darker side of the story, however, was how the uranium would effect generations of Navajo people. Navajo miners averaged cumulative exposures of radiation that were 44 times higher than radiation levels at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pasternak reported.

Cancer rates soared in the decades following discovery of uranium and a generation of children was born with a condition known as Navajo Neuropathy, characterized by liver damage, dimmed vision and fingers and toes that fused and stiffened into hooks.

Further, the government actually assisted Navajo families as they installed uranium-rich building materials into their houses, which led to lifetimes of exposure to the poisonous radiation, Pasternak reported. Despite its undeniable role in the devastation of a people, however, the government continually has failed to help solve the problem.

"Even though the U.S. government was the sole client of the uranium mining companies that caused the damage, and allowed them to leave without cleaning up waste, one verdict has come down from each federal agency petitioned for help over the years: the problem is too expensive to fix," a news release about Pasternak's book states.

And mining companies today still are pressing for uranium mining on the Nation, despite a 2005 ban passed by the Navajo Tribal Council.

"Navajo has the richest source, the biggest uranium table, other than the Colorado plateau," said Larry Martinez, program manager for the Navajo Office of Uranium Workers. "Most of what was mined in the U.S. was in this area."

The tragedy was that those who worked with uranium believed they were just earning honest wages, not contributing to warfare or endangering their own lives, Martinez said.

"The awakening came from this area when all of a sudden the men were dying off from diseases they never had before," he said. "They weren't soldiers on the front line. They weren't trained to die. These folks out here knew nothing about it."

When Pasternak first learned of uranium mining during a meeting in Washington, D.C., she was caught off guard, she said during a telephone interview Friday.

"I count myself among the people who didn't know about it," she said. "Until then, I hadn't really thought about where uranium came from, or that Navajos mined it. When I learned that miners were getting sick, it was just a shock to me."

Pasternak, who spent time on the Navajo Nation for a 2006 series of investigative news articles, called mining and the devastating effects of uranium "out of sight, out of mind" for much of the world.

"Even by the 80s or 90s when Navajos were beginning to realize that there were dangers there, it was hard to get attention because they don't have a lot of money, they don't have a lot of clout," she said. "The reservation is divided among many different congressional districts, and it's in parts of three states, so there just isn't a voice."

The story is not entirely negative, however, Pasternak said. Research on uranium and efforts to clean up mine, mill and transportation sites finally are paying off. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the second of five years of a massive clean-up operation authorized by Congress in 2007.

"One of the things I like about the story, especially when I told it from beginning to end in the book, is that it's not just a story of victims," she said. "The thing that's good about this is that instead of just finding problems, they're trying to solve them along the way."

For many families, help is coming too late, Martinez said. And compensation laws exclude many Navajo miners or descendants who don't have records of their involvement.

"Quite a few who are ill don't get compensation because of the way the laws were written," Martinez said. "You can't replace the person who used to sit across the table from you. You can't give back hearing that was lost because of the machinery. More research needs to be done."

Pasternak will speak about her book and the research on uranium mining Wednesday at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock.

She will return Thursday to visit Central Consolidated School District classrooms.

Hoping to spur classroom discussion about the uranium legacy, the school district purchased 350 copies of "Yellow Dirt" for use by students studying Navajo history and language or U.S. government, district spokesman James Preminger said.

Pasternak also hopes to greet many of the Navajo people who contributed to her book, though she recognizes that reunions may be bittersweet.

"In the meantime, people have died," she said. "A lot of time has passed since mining began, and people still don't even know the scope of the problem."

Alysa Landry: alandry@daily-times.com

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Judy Pasternak, author of "Yellow Dirt"

WHEN: 6 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center, Shiprock

COST: Tickets are $5 and are available at the Phil. Tickets also can be charged by phone (505) 368-2490 or purchased online at www.fillthephil.com.