Judy Pasternak's Navajo uranium study "Yellow Dirt," reviewed by Ann Cummins
By Ann Cummins
Washaington Post Book World. Sunday, October 17, 2010
An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed
By Judy Pasternak
Free Press. 317 pp. $26
I first heard about radiation poisoning on the Navajo Reservation in the late 1960s. I was a teenager living on the reservation. My father was one of the white millers employed by the Vanadium Corporation of
Pasternak locates ground zero in Cane Valley, 30 miles northeast of Arizona's gorgeous red rock country,
There's nothing clinical or dry about "Yellow Dirt." While Pasternak cites a wide array of specialists in fields ranging from geology to nuclear physics, the story unfolds like true crime, where real-life heroes and villains play dynamic roles in a drama that escalates page by page. Pasternak briefly traces historical beginnings, from Marie Curie's discovery of radium to the Manhattan Project's work with plutonium, the bombing of Japan and the birth of Harry Truman's postwar baby, the Atomic Energy Commission. She describes how the AEC partnered with U.S. mining companies to fuel the Cold War.
Culling from oral histories and interviews to tell the story of the native people, the author tracks the
The crime story in "Yellow Dirt" develops around early tensions within the AEC. Pasternak quotes AEC safety inspector Ralph Batie telling a
The arms race gave the government a powerful motivation to speed ahead, and the VCA had carte blanche to exploit resources on the reservation. "Exploit" is the appropriate word here. The author details deep cultural and language gaps as well as geographical isolation that allowed the company to cut corners and put the Navajo miners at great risk. The AEC eventually raised safety standards, but neither it nor the VCA effectively educated the non-English-speaking miners about health hazards in yellow dirt, the tailings that piled up all over Indian land. After the industry collapsed in 1969, the piles remained for several years, and
This crime story builds to a powerful climax: chilling statistical evidence for an epidemic of cancer, birth defects and other devastating fallout from uranium mining on the reservation.
Pasternak is a compelling writer, though she can seem biased, as when she calls Johnson "an ambitious man who liked to feel important." Declarations like this are gratuitous in a book so comprehensive and well-told that readers can draw their own conclusions.
Eye-opening and riveting, "Yellow Dirt" gives a sobering glimpse into our atomic past and adds a critical voice to the debate about resurrecting
Ann Cummins is the author of a novel, "Yellowcake," and curator of "Southwest Book Reviews" for NPR affiliate KNAU in