Sunday, July 31, 2011

"This book practically jumped off the shelf at me," says Lynn

Yellow Dirt
A world-class deposit of uranium runs under the Navajo reservation in the American Southwest. The radioactive “yellow dirt” lay entombed beneath its earthen shield until the U.S. government came calling, desperate to make atomic bombs. Despite warnings from doctors and scientists that long-term exposure could be harmful, even fatal, thousands of Navajo uranium miners worked unprotected to fuel the nuclear arsenals of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. Long after the uranium boom ended, the neighbors continued to live with contamination. Mine waste and gritty tailings from processing mills ended up in their drinking supplies, in their walls and floors, in their playgrounds, their bread ovens, their churches, and even their garbage dumps. People are still dying.

Few knew what had happened until Judy Pasternak wrote a prizewinning newspaper series that galvanized a powerful congressman and a famous prosecutor to press for redress and repair of the grievous damage. In this critically acclaimed book, Pasternak introduces Adakai, also known as the Gambler, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Their story, along with gripping new details from government and industry files, knits the personal and the political into a grand tale of betrayal, of willful negligence, and, ultimately, of reckoning.

Lynn says:
"This book practically jumped off the shelf at me recently and I HAD to read/buy it for personal reasons (having been to a Navajo reservation for a teaching interview back in either '88 or '92 that had a glaringly large number of birth defects in the population from uranium contamination)...

Very reminiscent of the journalistic sleuthing in exposes like Reisner's Cadillac Desert, Yergin's The Prize or Patel's Stuffed and Starved, Yellow Dirt uncovers the calculated shirking of responsibilities by the least ethical players and follows the relentless dedication of indigenous as well as legal, journalistic and scientific actors in a drama that reads almost like a John Sayles script with the Four Corners region as its backdrop.  Spanning from the dawn of the nuclear age (since just before the Manhattan Project) into the present day, Pasternak documents how mining practices that utterly ignored workers' safety, the largest accidental release of radioactive material in US history (dwarfing 3 Mile Island in PA), on top of contamination of water and soils with herbicides and heavy metals combined to tear apart the communities of the area and make of the Four Corners region a collection of extremely unsafe hotspots for residents whose high rates of cancers, lung ailments, eye and liver disorders, neuropathy and other birth defects are still being felt to this day.

The diaspora created in the wake of the (very tardy) recognition of the dangers of living on contaminated land has flung extended families far and wide, but those who have chosen to remain or return to their ancestral home are determined to restore life to a degree of health unseen in decades.  After complaints have fallen on deaf ears in the halls of power for so many years, it feels like a small victory for these people to be finally signing documents ensuring belated gov't-issued homes to replace those deemed dangerous by the EPA now that new generations have already been born and old ones have suffered silently and died surrounded by heavily contaminated walls with only the most polluted of water to drink. Reading about every inch of painful progress in the David v. Goliath struggle between some of the most powerless and vulnerable (yet mightily determined!) on this continent and some of the most blindly driven by profit, is sobering indeed, yet also a celebration of the human spirit and the fact that, as Milton Yazzie, one of many in the book who have seen their loved ones fall victim to nuclear power's dark side, says, there are 'people out there with hearts and not only dollar signs'."

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