Jerrel Singer never wanted to be an artist. Though his family was filled with creatives, he was headed at 22 years old in the opposite direction. He was a Navajo college student and on his way to becoming a mechanical engineer.
It wasn’t meant to be.
His father became gravely ill with cancer and Singer dropped out of school to care for him. During hospital visits, he began drawing to pass the time and the habit stuck.
In 1997, two years later, his father passed away. These days, the Flagstaff artist wants people to know exactly why he died and how his family suffered. It was from years of exposure to uranium mines once operated and then abandoned on Navajo Nation, a story he tells through his murals.
“We were trying to figure out why our family was getting sick. We found out there was a lot of nuclear testing in the area and uranium mining,” said Singer, who grew up in Cameron and Gray Mountain on the Navajo reservation. “People say it’s over, but the only thing the government has done is put a fence up around the mines. ... This is where we grew up and where we played. That land was our life source and now we can’t go back there. The places we feel comfortable at, we can’t go back to.”
Singer now spends his days painting breathtaking landscapes and psychedelic skies with striking colors. It’s easy to get lost in these mesmerizing images but they’re not just pretty pictures. Threaded into the stunning depictions is a message: “Are they not waging nuclear war when the miners die from cancer from mining the uranium,” he inscribed on one of his pieces.
Uranium mining might have caused his father’s cancer, but its dual impact in forging Singer’s path to becoming an artist resulted in years of protest art by Singer, who is looking to raise awareness about its impact on Navajo Nation. Those responsible aren’t getting away with it under his watch.
Once upon a mineTragically, Singer’s story is not unusual. The human cost of uranium mining and subsequent lack of clean up afterward is tremendous. It extends not only to the Navajo residents living near the mines, but to those who worked those mines without proper protection.
With as much harm uranium mining brought, it’s fair to wonder how we got here in the first place.
The demand for uranium to produce nuclear weapons in the United States increased dramatically after the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
The Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union only stoked the fires of the demand for uranium. More than 1,000 mines were established across the Navajo Nation – which sprawls across 27,413 square miles of desert over northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico – after large carnotite deposits were found on the reservation.
According to the EPA, from 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. As a result, there are more than 500 abandoned mines on Navajo land.
Today, there are five federal agencies working to clean up the orphaned mines, but for some, these efforts are too little, too late.
Miners weren’t properly protected from the toxins and often unknowingly spread the radioactive dust via their work clothes. Many Natives on the reservation built their homes with material from mine and mill sites, or were exposed to contaminated water.
Exposure to high levels of uranium can impact reproductive health and autoimmune function, and cause kidney disease and high blood pressure, according to the EPA. Radiation from uranium can cause lung and bone cancer.
Uranium is in the air. It’s in the water. It’s in the soil. It’s seeped into many Navajo communities’ health, livelihood, and way of life.
Groups like Post-71 Uranium Workers Committee sprang up to demand compensation for the health issues they suffered as a result of mining. Other groups like Red Water Pond Road Community Association, Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment, Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance, and Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining also formed to advocate for the rights of Natives who are impacted by the uranium mining, even decades after the mining ended.
Susan Gordon, coordinator for Multicultural Alliance for Safe Environment, which is headquartered in Albuquerque, works with the advocacy groups.
The decision as to whether to move to physically distance themselves from the mines is a difficult choice, Gordon said. These are their homes. The Navajo are a tribe heavily focused on agriculture, and their livelihoods are sometimes dependent on the land.
“Indigenous people deal with land and time very differently than white people,” Gordon said. “They have been on this land for generations. In Navajo tradition, once a baby is born, the umbilical cord is taken and buried on the land. They feel very connected to this place. It’s their home; it’s where their family lives. Even though folks have taken these buyout deals, it is their intention to return. They want it cleaned up so they can return. People are taking the buyouts because they have young children and they are constantly being exposed to radon and uranium. It’s completely understandable that after generations of trauma they don’t want to have to stay. Are they frustrated? Yes.”
Cleaning up chaosAsk anyone familiar with the issue about cleaning up the abandoned mines and they’ll tell you it’s complicated.
Studies and tests need to be performed at the sites, which can, and does, take years.
“I don’t think anyone ever thought cleaning up five hundred (and) some mines would take this long. This will probably take place over multiple generations,” said Paul Robinson, research director for the Southwest Research and Information Center. “The pace of clean up has moved at a snail’s pace since the EPA is doing investigations and coming up with alternatives for each and every site, and it takes a very long time to do those things. You’re hard-pressed to give the government credit for remediating anything more than a handful of sites out of the five hundred and twenty three (mines). The federal government has never really taken full responsibility for the defense-related mining impact. Right now, the government is the principal person to go after because many of these companies aren’t around anymore.”
EPA entered into a $1.7 billion settlement to clean up the mines that pose the biggest danger to the Navajo people. The money is being used to begin the assessment and clean up process of 219 of the 523 mines.
In October 2007, EPA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, and the Indian Health Service, and Navajo Nation EPA developed a five-year plan to address uranium contamination. In 2014, the group created a second five-year plan built on the work done during the first five years. New strategies were established to take on the worst of the uranium sites. Forty-six mines were chosen as priority projects based on their levels of gamma radiation, proximity to homes, and potential for water contamination.
According to the EPA, all 46 priority mines are being assessed via biological and cultural surveys, radiation scanning, and soil and water sampling. These assessments will help reveal the extent of uranium contamination.
“It becomes very complicated to find out how to deal with it,” Gordon said. “There is dumped tailings in water sources. They’re releasing radon into the air. There is chemistry involved. Mercury and other metals and substances are there. ... The longer the uranium tailings are sitting out it creates a worse problem. It doesn’t rain often in the desert, but when it rains it rains very heavily. It washes the tailings downstream so it’s spreading contamination and spreading it to groundwater.”
But the impact these chemicals have had on multiple generations isn’t so complicated. In fact, many believe that the lack of progress on Navajo Nation land is because many of the people living on that land are poor racial minorities.
“In communities that are wealthier and more Anglo, like for example Durango, Colorado, in the 1970s had significant tailings, uranium mill tailings, in part of their community. The EPA got wind of that situation. They essentially rebuilt the entire neighborhood after they removed the tailing piles three miles off-site. They did it all in a period of seven years. So it can be done very quickly,” Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which represents Red Water Pond, told Albuquerque news station KOB4 in August.
Fresh water, fresh startAs the slow work toward clean up marches on, other organizations are looking for ways to offer more immediate solutions.
“We’re only working on Navajo Nation. What we do is we develop a safe water source, whether that’s rehabilitating a well, digging a new well, or using a community well,” she said.
According to the Navajo Water Project website, nearly 40 percent of Navajo still don’t have a tap or a toilet at home. To date, 214 water systems have been installed in New Mexico thanks to Navajo Water Project.
As a Navajo, Robbins is no stranger to the impact of uranium mining and the plight of Natives living near those mines. Many of those living on the reservation lack amenities and resources, and her own grandparents didn’t have electricity or running water.
“I, fortunately, grew up with running water, but most of my family didn’t. Having that experience really shaped the way I view things,” Robbins said.
Tragedy struck Robbins’s family when she was 13 years old. Her grandmother developed stomach cancer and died because their water was contaminated by uranium. Losing the family matriarch left a deep wound, and it’s a subject that’s still difficult for her family to talk about.
“That was something that impacted me. You can’t be from a Native nation and not feel a connection to the water in some way, whether that be spiritual or otherwise,” she said. “It’s always a sore subject with my family. ... My dad’s generation doesn’t want to talk about it and he lost his mom to that. We’re still trying to figure out that vocabulary on how to talk about these horrific things.”
Robbins is from Cameron, Arizona, where there are some of the largest abandoned uranium mines. When she goes back to visit, she always notices an 11x17 sign in particular that warns of nearby uranium mines. A good idea in theory, but “not everyone speaks English, which means they don’t read English,” she said.
Using art to educate people on the issues is a great way to communicate instead, said Robbins, who is also an artist.
“There’s a lot of great artists that are working on these issues. It’s a beautiful way of bringing attention to something that is very tragic – it’s a culture killer,” Robbins said.
Robbins is working through her art and her work with Navajo Water Project to raise awareness and prevent the same tragedy from happening to other families, but her own loss is still a painful reminder for her and her family about the lack of clean up and education on the dangers of uranium.
“Being in a matriarchal culture, it was shocking to lose our grandmother,” Robbins said. “It was really hard to lose her over something pretty preventable, had they known they were living so close to those mines. By not having her, we lost a lot of our stories and oral history. As we get older, we realize it’s important to know these stories to prevent these situations in other families.”