Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed

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Overview

WINNER OF THE J. ANTHONY LUKAS WORK-IN-PROGRESS AWARD

Atop a craggy mesa in the northern reaches of the Navajo reservation lies what was once a world-class uranium mine called Monument No. 2. Discovered in the 1940s—during the government’s desperate press to build nuclear weapons—the mesa’s tremendous lode would forever change the lives of the hundreds of Native Americans who labored there and of their families, including many who dwelled in the valley below for generations afterward.

Yellow Dirt offers readers a window into a dark chapter of modern history that still reverberates today. From the 1940s into the early twenty-first century, the United States knowingly used and discarded an entire tribe for the sake of atomic bombs. Secretly, during the days of the Manhattan Project and then in a frenzy during the Cold War, the government bought up all the uranium that could be mined from the hundreds of rich deposits entombed under the sagebrush plains and sandstone cliffs. Despite warnings from physicians and scientists that long-term exposure could be harmful, even fatal, thousands of miners would work there unprotected. A second set of warnings emerged about the environmental impact. Yet even now, long after the uranium boom ended, and long after national security could be cited as a consideration, many residents are still surrounded by contaminated air, water, and soil. The radioactive "yellow dirt" has ended up in their drinking supplies, in their walls and floors, in their playgrounds, in their bread ovens, in their churches, and even in their garbage dumps. And they are still dying.

Transporting readers into a little-known country-within-a-country, award-winning journalist Judy Pasternak gives rare voice to Navajo perceptions of the world, their own complicated involvement with uranium mining, and their political coming-of-age. Along the way, their fates intertwine with decisions made in Washington, D.C., in the Navajo capital of Window Rock, and in the Western border towns where swashbuckling mining men trained their sights on the fortunes they could wrest from tribal land, successfully pressuring the government into letting them do it their way.

Yellow Dirt powerfully chronicles both a scandal of neglect and the Navajos’ long fight for justice. Few had heard of this shameful legacy until Pasternak revealed it in a prize-winning Los Angeles Times series that galvanized a powerful congressman and a famous prosecutor to press for redress and repair of the grievous damage. In this expanded account, she provides gripping new details, weaving the personal and the political into a tale of betrayal, of willful negligence, and, ultimately, of reckoning.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Journalist Pasternak details the history of American uranium mining and its horrific consequences for the Navajo people in this stunning tale of deception, betrayal, and bitter consequences. Situated atop some of the richest uranium deposits in the country, the reservation covers parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona and the area was instrumental in the building of the atomic bomb and, later, the cold war arms race. From 1930 to 1960, Navajo miners worked long days without ventilation or protective gear, while mining companies and government officials withheld from them information about the hazards of radiation. As birth defects and cancers became more prevalent than in the general population (residents of the reservation were 15-200 times more likely to contract stomach cancer), government agencies actively prevented the Navajos from connecting their illnesses to the uranium saturating their water, homes, livestock, and topsoil. The author brings half a century of deception to light and details the halting efforts to secure compensation for the victims. With nuclear power once more being discussed as a solution to America’s energy problems, Pasternak’s portrait of a devastated community and callous governmental indifference is crucial reading. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"This book will break your heart. Not only an enormous achievement – literally, a piece of groundbreaking investigative journalism – it also illustrates exactly what careful, painstaking, and risk-taking reporting should do: Show us what we’ve become as a people, and sharpen our vision of who we, the people, ought to become."—The Christian Science Monitor

"Studded with vivid character sketches and evocative descriptions of the American landscape, Pasternak's scarifying account of uranium mining's disastrous consequences often reads like a novel...does justic to the ethical and historial ambiguities while crafting a narrative of exemplary clarity."—Los Angeles Times

"Chilling. Has the cumulative power of scrupulous truth-telling and the value of old-style investigative reportage."—Laura Miller, Salon

“This book is a masterwork. It is journalism at its very best—a story told fully and eloquently. A story that everyone should know.”
—Michael Connelly, author of Nine Dragons

“One of those stories that makes us believe all over again in journalism, in its power to bring truth to light.” —Harvard’s Nieman Narrative Digest

“This compelling and compassionate book could not be more timely. A gripping story of the betrayal of the Navajos, it comes at a time where once again the human costs of energy production are slighted and both the government and corporations ride roughshod over the least powerful.”
—Richard White, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Recipient of a Macarthur Fellowship, and Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University

"An astounding book. Judy Pasternak has dug deeply into the archives and into the ground itself to uncover the real story behind one of the darkest chapters of the Cold War on American soil. With her dogged pursuit of the facts and an elegant prose style, Pasternak elevates investigative journalism into the realm of literature." — Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World

"Disturbing and illuminating. Pasternak evokes the magnitude of a nuclear disaster that continues to reverberate. Unfolds like true crime, where real-life heroes and villains play dynamic roles in a drama that escalates page by page. Eye-opening and riveting, "Yellow Dirt" gives a sobering glimpse into our atomic past and adds a critical voice to the debate about resurrecting America's nuclear industry."—The Washington Post

"A window into a dark chapter of modern history that still reverberates today.Transporting readers into a little-known country-within-a-country, award-winning journalist Judy Pasternak gives rare voice to Navajo perceptions of the world, their own complicated involvement with uranium mining, and their political coming-of-age. A work of the highest quality journalism, an exposé made possible by meticulous research... She has taken a large cast of characters, a bulging list of corporations and government agencies, and a scientific subject and managed to unite them in a story that the average reader can comprehend."—Stacy Rae Brownlie, BookBrowse

Ann Cummins
…disturbing and illuminating…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 is a compelling writer…
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416594826
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 9/21/2010
  • Pages: 317
  • Sales rank: 1,042,790
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Judy Pasternak is a writer who lives near Washington DC. She worked for the Los Angeles Times for 24 years, in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, tackling subjects as varied as al Qaeda's private airline, a band of right-wing bank robbers, backstage maneuvering at Dick Cheney's energy task force and the giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way. She has won numerous awards for environmental and investigative journalism. Previously, she worked at the Detroit Free Press, Baltimore News American and Hollywood (Fla.) Sun-Tattler. She is married, with one son.

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Table of Contents

Principal Characters

Prologue S-37, Som, and Soq 1

THE URANIUM RUSH

PART I THE PATRIARCH

Discovery

Chapter 1 The Special Rocks 13

Chapter 2 The Secret Quest 24

Chapter 3 Jumping on the King 33

PART II THE SON

Fear and Frenzy

Chapter 4 The Power of Leetso 43

Chapter 5 Cold War 53

Chapter 6 The Obstacle 65

Chapter 7 A Hundred Tons a Day 80

Chapter 8 Endings 98

TOXIC LEGACY

PART III THE GRANDCHILDREN

Aftermath

Chapter 9 Fallout 119

Chapter 10 Avalanche of Suspicion 131

Chapter 11 A Blind Eye and a Deaf Ear 145

PART IV THE GREAT-GRANDCHILDREN

Death and Awakening

Chapter 12 "Hear Our Voices" 163

Chapter 13 Under Scrutiny from Every Angle 180

Chapter 14 Resistance 197

Chapter 15 Ghosts 220

Chapter 16 Beginnings 241

Epilogue The Steeple 254

Acknowledgments 261

Notes 265

Selected Bibliography 293

Index 305

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