Toxic Southwest

Welcome to the

"There is nothing moral about tempting a starving man with money."
                                                                         – Keith Lewis of the Serpent River First Nation


The radioactive poisoning of land and its inhabitants has been going on for decades in the American southwest. The roots of this travesty lie in the economic exploitation and racial oppression carried out by the US Government and various corporations. The government and wealthy corporations have  systematically taken advantage of poorer communities and their economic struggles within the southwest. In some instances, the government refuses to acknowledge harm done from nuclear-related activites to native and non-native citizens.


Storage of radioactive waste on Native American lands has also become problematic. Native American nations are sovereign lands and they are not subject to the same environmental policies as United States lands. The government and the private nuclear industry as a whole are aware of this loophole and have taken advantage of it as they have bribed economically-challenged reservations over the years to store radioactive waste.


In addition to nuclear waste storage, mining has taken its toll on the Southwest. There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines alone on Navajo land. These mines continue to poison the once clean 17.2 million acres owned by the Navajo Nation. According to Winona LaDuke, an expert and author in the subject of radiation issues on Native American lands, 317 reservations in the United States today are threatened by environmental hazards.


This website is an introduction to the issues surrounding the environmental and health effects of uranium mining and nuclear waste storage in the American Southwest. We'll discuss what radiation is, the history of nuclear issues, some of the impacted native and non-native communities, the RECA Act, how you can learn more and get involved in securing justice for the affected people of the southwest.


Note: Click green links to read more about a topic. A new browser window will open.


The Government's Role

Between 1944 and 1989, 3.9 million tons of uranium were mined in the United States. Since the US government would not mine the uranium ore itself, it contracted private companies to do it for them. The private companies hired Navajo and other Native American tribesman who were eager to work and feed their families. While the negative health impacts of uranium were known by the government and private companies, that information was not communicated to the miners. Since the government needed the uranium to make nuclear weapons, information about the health effects were hidden for many years causing irreperable damage to the miners' health. To further cement the idea of environmental racism being a major factor, in 1987 the US Government created the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator. It was the negotiator's job to contact all tribes within the US and offer large amounts of money, sometimes in the millions, to tribes willing to store toxic nuclear waste on their lands. It's easy to see why the money offered was tempting because twice as many Native families live below the poverty line than others in the USA and they often have few options for generating income.


In 2005, the Dine Natural Resources protection Act of 2005 banned all mining on Navajo land. However the toxic legacy of the past still pollutes the environment in the form of abandoned mines and affects the health of many Navajo as well as other Native Americans.


Private Industry

Private companies have also played a role in the environmental issues plaguing the southwest and its communties. While there are several issues we can discuss, we will focus on 2 specifically---one on Native American land and another on government land.


1979 Churchrock, NM Spill

The United Nuclear Corporation owned a mine that was located on Navajo land.About 350 Navajo families lived in the area. The Rio Puerco flowed year around thanks to excess water being pumped out of the mine to prevent flooding within its underground shafts. The mine included a large "pond" holding 90 million gallons of uranium mill waste. Mill waste is what is left over once uranium is extracted from the sandstone and other rock that is mined all at once. The mill waste still contains 85% of the original radioactivy even after the uranium is removed. The purpose of the pond was to let water evaporate so the radioactive mill waste could be stored once dry. On July 16th, 1100 tons of solid radioactive mill waste was released as the dam holding the waste in the pond was breached. Radiation levels of river water was 7000 times that of normal drinking water. 1700 people lost access to clean water due to the spill. This disaster could've been avoided since it was noted that cracks had formed in the dam one year after building it. Nothing was done by the New mexico government nor the mine company. It's been speculated that United Nuclear Corporation had deep influence within New Mexico's government.


Studies conducted by the Southwest Research and Information Center have shown that  since the 1950s, the Navajo have had much higher rates for some cancers than the national average most likely due in part to environmental disasters like Churchrock.


Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)

While technically a government run project, the US government has contracted day-to-day operations of WIPP to a company called Washington Tru Solutions. The government has put a private company in charge of a dangerous storage facility and that policy has already caused problems to arise. WIPP is a deep-Earth storage facility meant to store radioactive waste for 10,000 years. It is located in southeast New Mexico. In 2014, a storage drum exploded and release radioactive materials over 2000 feet underground. While none of the plant's workers were harmed or even near the explosion, one week after the explosion the Department of Energy stated that 13 above ground WIPP workers had tested positive for radiation exposure.  Apparently, the radioactive gases had entered the ventilation system and travled thouought the facility and eventually above ground. The cause of the explosion is still not known but it should be of great concern to everyone since the barrel was only one of 171,000 waste containers. WIPP is currently closed due to the accident. Even though WIPP is not located on Native American lands, it shows how a person or community doesn't have to be indigenous in order for the larger issue of environmental contamination to affect us all.


According to "DOE is in a rush to re-open WIPP even though the facility cannot meet the previous operational and safety standards, let alone more stringent requirements that are necessary to prevent future accidents. The WIPP underground remains contaminated, so operations have to be greatly changed, including workers being dressed in 'ebola suits'. Ventilation will not be restored to the pre-2014 levels until 2021 or later - the new system is not designed and how much it will cost is unknown."


Radiation and Its Health Effects

Radiation is all around us. The universe emits background radiation, as do cell phones, and smoke detctors inside of your home. There are different types of radiation, each with its own set of properties. According to Beyond Nuclear:


  • Radiation is energy that travels in waves or particles. Each type of radiation has different properties. Non-ionizing radiation can shake or move molecules. Ionizing radiation, the kind expelled from nuclear reactors, can actually break molecular bonds in our cells, causing unpredictable chemical reactions.

  • Radiation damage and protection levels are based on “Reference Man,” a healthy, white male in the prime of life, and mostly ignore the more vulnerable fetus, growing infant and child, the aged, those in poor health, and women who are, according to the National Academy of Sciences 37- 50% more vulnerable than adult men to the harmful effects of ionizing radiation. These levels, therefore, do not take into account the far greater vulnerability of women and children, especially pregnant women and unborn children. states: Ionizing radiation can change the structure of the cells, sometimes creating potentially harmful effects that are more likely to cause changes in tissue. These changes can interfere with cellular processes so cells might not be able to divide or they might divide too much. Some effects may occur immediately (days or months) while others might take tens of years or even get passed to the next generation.



















This is not an all-inclusive list but according to the Public Health Division of the US Department of Veterans Affairs , diseases caused by over-exposure to radiation can include:


  • Cancers of the bile ducts, bone, brain, breast, colon, esophagus, gall bladder, liver (primary site, but not if cirrhosis or hepatitis B is indicated), lung (including bronchiolo-alveolar cancer), pancreas, pharynx, ovary, salivary gland, small intestine, stomach, thyroid, urinary tract (kidney/renal, pelvis, urinary bladder, and urethra)

  • Leukemia (except chronic lymphocytic leukemia)

  • Lymphomas (except Hodgkin’s disease)

  • Multiple myeloma (cancer of plasma cells)


Impacted Communities

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, we have chosen a handful of impacted Southwestern communities to spotlight.

Dine (Navajo)




Tularosa Downwinders

San Ildefonso/Santa Clara




The cancer death rate on the [Navajo] reservation — historically much lower than that of the general U.S. population — doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, according to Indian Health Service data. The overall U.S. cancer death rate declined slightly over the same period.

Judy Pasternak

The LA Times

Although no official governmental survey of long-term health effects has been conducted on these so-called “downwinders” and their descendants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated documents relating to the test and concluded that nearby residents were almost certainly exposed to harmful levels of radiation and may have experienced negative health effects, such as cancer, as a result.

Ty Bannerman


Contamination of local water supplies around uranium mines and processing plants has been documented in Brazil, Colorado, Texas, Australia, Namibia and many other sites. To supply even a fraction of the power stations the industry expects to be online worldwide in 2020 would mean generating 50 million tonnes of toxic radioactive residues every single year.

David Thorpe

The Guardian


Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

This is NOT an official or extensive form about the RECA. Information provided is a general overview about the Act.

RECA was created for people seeking compensation relating to nuclear testing and workers in the uranium industry. It covers those who have developed serious health illnesses as a result of radiation exposure from atmospheric nuclear test between 1945-1962. Also, it covers those who developed serious health illnesses working in the uranium industry before 1971. Overall, “Claimants qualify for compensation by establishing the diagnosis of a listed comprehensible disease after working or residing on a designated location for a specific period.”
Although RECA is an Act that has helped many individuals, it fails to cover many others who have suffered from atmospheric testing and the uranium mining industry. One problem with RECA is it does not cover everyone who has been affected by nuclear weapons testing and working around uranium. For example, the people in the town of Tularosa were the first downwinders in 1945 after the first nuclear weapons test took place. They were the first to get poisoned by an atmospheric nuclear test, but they do not qualify for compensation from RECA. Many other communities also fall outside the limited areas that have been determined to be covered under the RECA Act. It is obvious that they and many other communities have suffered from atmospheric nuclear test and should be compensated.


Additionally, uranium industry workers after 1971 do not qualify for compensation under RECA, even though uranium mining is still done today and has remained dangerous after 1971. Fortunately, RECA can be amended to include all communities that were initially excluded from receiving compensation. Please call your State Representatives in support of House Bill 994 and Senate Bill 331.

Barriers RECA applicants might encounter:

  • Proving residence in an area covered under RECA. (must have lived in the area for over 2 years)

  • Proving employemnt history in in the uranium industry

  • Having illness not covered under RECA

  • Lengthy and difficult application forms

Even though there are many problems with RECA it has helped thousands of US Americans. RECA compensated 2 billion dollars in claims so far. It has also covered all qualified applicants with medical coverage that has no co-payments or deductibles. Sense, the applications are lengthy and problematic for many people and communities government officials have gone to areas upon request to help applicants complete and submit the forms. The individual compensation goes from $50,000 to $100,000 depending on what the applicant is claiming.


If you wish to apply or find further information please contact the US government by one of the following ways:

•    Phone: 1-800-729-7327
•    Email:



For further information, we have selected a few resources we recommend (click each name to open in a new window):

For a detailed map of New Mexico areas affected by contamination, please 
click here.










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