Destructive Uranium Mining
Right next to the village in which Carletta Garcia grew up, was once located the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine. The mining has not only destroyed most of her family, but also the whole culture and economy of her tribe.
What was it like to live that close to a uranium mine?
I grew up in Paguate Village, near the Jackpile Mine, located in the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico. It was in a beautiful valley. We had gardens and we would picnic there on Sundays. At that time nobody knew the potential danger of uranium. The mine opened in 1953, when there was a boom in uranium mining. It was in operation 24/7. As I grew up, all I remember is the dynamite blastings. It was like a war zone: Every day around 12 o’clock they would sound off a siren and blast this massive amount of dynamite.
It shook our whole Mesa. We were sitting at lunch and sometimes the wind was just right and the dust would settle on our dinner and we would eat that along with our food. The ladies at that time would dry food and deer meat outside and all of that would be contaminated and we ate that. When people built their homes, they would bring in the rocks and soil from the mining area, because it was free. They plastered their homes, they built ovens (to cook traditional breads and corn) and it was all contaminated.
“We did all these things we couldn ́t do before, but we didn ́t know that we were being contaminated.”
But mining was the big thing, it brought in a lot of money. We went to town, to Pizza Hut, we did all these things we couldn ́t do before because of the money. But the only thing they didn’t tell us was, that we were being contaminated.
In the 70’s women were employed in the mines, so you and your mother started working there?
Yes. When my mother started she operated a dump truck, with which she transported highgrade uranium ore. In 1979, when I was 19, I also started to work in the mine. All this time we were inhaling and ingesting uranium particles and at lunch we would sit and eat on top of the stockpiles of uranium ore. We were never told that it was dangerous. My mother was a single mother, so she needed the job. It was a high paying job at that time, it helped us to become affluent. People bought vehicles and nice things for their homes during the „boom“.
Did you know about the danger of radiation?
They never told us about radiation and we never had dosimeter badges. They paid us very well, $15 an hour. For someone who was 19 in 1979, that was a lot of money. I was young and impressionable. When you are young, you don ́t think of the future, you think about the immediate, about going down to the shops, buying some nice things. But around 1993 my mother discovered 2 lumps under her arm. She had cancer. Then she went through six years of intense chemotherapy. My husband died 4 years ago from pancreatic cancer. He didn ́t work in the mine, but his brothers did. They brought home their laundry and it was being washed with the family’s wash. Also his house was less than 100 feet away from the train tracks that carried the uranium ore from the mine to the crusher site. Along that route, if you take a Geiger counter, you can still read the traces of the ore there. The train was open, they never covered it, so it is all contaminated there.
What people don’t realise is, if their parents worked in the mines, they were bringing the contamination into their homes. Now we are still fighting the effects of what the mine has left for us. There are a lot of people who are sick, a lot of people dying. I myself have thyroid disease. I am 50, still beautiful, but I am a widow. I am not going to live my golden years with my husband. In 1981 the mines shut down due to a sudden price drop for uranium.
What has changed since then for your tribe?
Everybody who was employed at the mine was out of a job. So we went into a big recession. In our village, people were losing things that they had bought on credit. We had a high suicide rate and lots of divorces because of financial problems. And along with that we started getting sick. It changed our culture.
We no longer follow the different rituals by the solstices and equinoxes. We decided to do this at other times when it is convenient for us. We are losing our own language. A lot of our children do not speak our language anymore. The mine basically changed our health, our economy, our social status and our culture. It was a big disruption in our lives. We went from being agriculturalists to working at dead-end jobs.
In 1999, shortly before she died, your mother, Dorothy Purley, won the International Nuclear Free Future Award due to her campaigning against uranium mining on Native American lands and territories. Has her life inspired you to keep going forward?
Yes. We live in this beautiful vessel, which we call earth. Whatever we do, remains, it does not leave. Nothing leaves our area. So we have to be careful in what we do and how we maintain things, because it is going to come back to haunt us. I fear for the generations that follow. I fear for my people, because they will continue to be plagued with different ailments like cancer, kidney diseases and diabetes …
Have Native Americans been treated differently by the mining company compared to white Americans?
We call it Environmental Racism. Every time some trash is dumped or some radioactive waste site is set up, it is always near people of color. I don’t know if it is a deliberate attempt by the government or not. It is just always like that. Probably 98% of my colleagues in the mine were Native Americans. This means a lot.