Nuclear testing and uranium mining during much of the cold war and its lunatic arms race left New Mexico, the Four Corners Region, and some say the whole country, more or less, contaminated by blast fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and airborne mining dust that has sickened and killed, and is still killing, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of Americans and their unborn babies, infants and children. Among the hardest hit were Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona.
And right now, after decades of blatant deceit and public health fraud denying risk or harm, when we are finally technologically equipped, and intellectually and perhaps even politically ready, to measure contemporary health impacts of exposure to Cold War radiation – especially from hundreds of open pit uranium mines around New Mexico and Arizona – American culture has fallen into an elephant trap of politically-induced stupidity that takes the form of sciencephobia.
The fear and loathing of science essentially blames the scientific method and its practitioners for producing a vision of the past and the future which is politically and ideologically unsuitable to the conservative oligarchs who now run our country. Republicans have forced a funding freeze to starve scientific research into climate change and other pressing environmental realities at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal departments. We find ourselves with a government that doesn’t trust the most trustworthy path to material knowledge that human beings possess.
In the past, a vast military propaganda machine, similar to that created by the tobacco and pesticide industries, convinced the public and its decision makers that national security imperatives demanded the United States explode some 100 nuclear bombs in the atmosphere at the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas, some 900 nuclear weapons underground, and dig up and process more than 225 million tons of uranium from which nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel are made.
We were told by the Atomic Energy Commission, which ran our nuclear programs from 1946 until it was dissolved in 1975 and its nuclear mission absorbed into the Department of Energy, that mining and testing posed minimal risk to public health. It was certainly nothing to worry our silly little heads about.
But by the end of the Cold War even the federal government owned up to the risks of downwind radiation contamination and exposure to radon and uranium dust for miners and their families. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) of 1990 has already forked out, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), over $2 billion to people living or working down wind of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, testing site workers, and uranium miners and their families. Considering the kinds of cancers – including leukemia, thyroid cancer, bone cancer – the individual compensation seems pretty stingy, from $50,000 to $150,000. But, as they say, it’s better than nothing and does serve as irrefutable evidence that nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining are, indeed, profound hazards to public health. The DOJ estimates that as of March 2016 “successful claims” of harm have been awarded to 19,555 downwinders, 3,963 test site employees, 6,214 uranium miners, 1,673 uranium mill operators, and 328 ore transporters.
And what about the future? Will it mirror the past? An important book from the University of Nebraska entitled “Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West” by Sarah Alisabeth Fox, details the physical and mental suffering of downwinders and of miners and their communities in Native America. Fox explains the combination of scientific ignorance and national security urgency that lead, in part, to the radioactive contamination of the Southwest: “The technology for measuring the polluting by-products of nuclear tests was primitive at best in the early years of the Cold War, and the AEC tended to make such safety monitoring secondary to the military task of measuring the explosive effects of the weapons. Since scientists knew relatively little about the by-products resulting from the tests, the way they traveled through the environment, or their potential effects on humans, many toxic radionuclides were never monitored at all. Similarly, obtaining great quantities of uranium quickly and cheaply was more of a priority than was monitoring the contamination caused by the uranium industry.” Native American workers were deemed expendable.
This analysis must also hold true for the thousands of above ground explosive tests of relatively small amounts plutonium and polonium at the Los Alamos National Labs during the heyday of nuclear weapons design and manufacture. A good source for this activity is the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA) project carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)and published in 2010. The project was designed to see if there could be a cause and effect relationship between above ground testing at Los Alamos and the stunning number of fatal cancers reported over the years in the Espanola Valley, downwind of the labs. The entire document is online at LADHDRA report.
With sciencephobia spreading through federal agencies like a flesh-eating disease, one wonders how many decades it will take for American national security science to recreate itself as a reliable monitor of nuclear hazardous waste. A very long time it seems. High Country News (HCN) reports in its May 1st edition that among the attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency in the Republican House of Representatives was a bill that would replace scientists and public health experts on the EPA’s advisory panel with “industry members and politicians.” The House is even meddling in what kinds of data the EPA can use. For instance, if findings can’t be reproduced, the data cannot be used. This sounds reasonable on the surface, but it “rules out data sets on environmental disasters, such as oil spills, and public health disasters such as radiation exposure.”
It was heartening to read in UNM’s Daily Lobo April 27 edition a piece by Cathy Cook on a joint project with UNM, Michigan State, and Southwest Research and Information Center studying “uranium mine dust” and the health effects of inhaling it by residents living near a uranium mine in the Blue Gap/Tachee Chapter of the Navajo Nation. The technological hardware for the project is supplied by Michigan State. The study is long, long overdue, in the light of more than 50 years of greatly increased incidents of cancer among Navajo and Pueblo peoples due to radioactive mining debris. Odds are that further federal funding for such research will be diminished or abolished by the Republican administration the first chance it gets.
With threats being made by the Republican majority to spilt up the huge 9th Circuit Court of Appeals with its history of relatively liberal rulings, things do not look good for the southwestern environment in the long run. The 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction covers Arizona, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals district. If the Trump EPA decides to contest California’s stringent and extremely effective clean-air regulations, lawsuits opposing the move would be heard in the 9th Circuit. And if lawsuits are generated by drought conditions forcing redistribution of Colorado River water among Nevada, California, and Arizona, the 9th Circuit would hear those too. What happens along the Colorado River, legally or climatologically, triggers a domino effect in every state that uses its water, no matter the judicial jurisdiction, and that includes New Mexico, of course.
We’ll also see in the coming years if a Supreme Court ruling in 1984, known as the Chevron deference, will be opposed by Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s new Supreme Court appointee. The Chevron deference allows a sitting administration to redefine regulations emerging from ambiguous environmental legislation and effectively change directions taken by previous administrations. In 1984, the Reagan EPA reinterpreted and watered down Superfund regulations created by the Carter Administration. The Supreme Court sided with Reagan in a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Although Gorsuch is on record opposing the Chevron deference, it will be fascinating to see if his principles can hold up against Trump’s redefinition of Obama EPA regulations and the lawsuits they are sure to bring to the Supreme Court.
Just as science was beginning to catch up technologically with decades of neglected research, the Great Republican Set Back has stunted progress in demented and unprecedented ways. But if hard times stimulate increased activity and vitality, the chaos and catastrophe of the last 100 days or so have sharpened and clarified our sense of purpose. The environmental community has become more invigorated than it has been since Earth Day 1970. Perhaps it’s absurd to be optimistic, but it’s fatal to be immobilized by despair.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it