Mining camp alive in memories of Navajo uranium victims

October 27, 2019 GMT
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In this Oct. 11, 2019 image, Gilbert Badoni stands at the mining camp across the mesa from where Union Carbide processed uranium and vanadium near Slick Rock, Colorado. Badoni said the mesas surrounding the camp still have visible radioactive tailings present. (Kathy Helms/Gallup Independent via AP)
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In this Oct. 11, 2019 image, Gilbert Badoni stands at the mining camp across the mesa from where Union Carbide processed uranium and vanadium near Slick Rock, Colorado. Badoni said the mesas surrounding the camp still have visible radioactive tailings present. (Kathy Helms/Gallup Independent via AP)

SLICK ROCK, Colo. (AP) — Across the gravel road from the Burro No. 7 mine in southwestern Colorado, the Dolores River rolls by, framed by the tall reeds overgrowing her banks. Waste material from the former Slick Rock West uranium-vanadium operation lies nearby.

Gilbert Badoni’s late uncle lost two young daughters to the river. They drowned the same day during the years the family lived at the mining camp up on the mesa when Badoni’s father worked for Union Carbide.

Although historical milling operations have contaminated the alluvial groundwater at Slick Rock West with benzene, manganese, molybdenum, nitrate, radium-226, radium-228, selenium, toluene, and uranium, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Legacy Management said past milling operations have had “no detectable effect” on water quality of the Dolores River.”

Annie Henry and Gilbert Badoni used to live at the mining camp in Slick Rock, Colorado. They revisited the area Oct. 11 and found remnants of their former homes.

Workers Committee, now lives in Gadiíahi (Cudeii). Last week, he returned to Slick Rock to see whether he could find his former home site. He did.

So did Annie Henry, who lived there with her late first husband Woodrow John and five of their six children. The sixth child was still in her womb when John died. Later, she met her current husband, Sam Henry, in Shiprock. He also had worked at Slick Rock West, as well as Union Carbide’s No. 7 mine near Egnar, Colorado.

Annie and Woodrow John lived in a small wood-frame house near the top of the mesa. They bought their drinking water from the store.

“But the water that most of the people got was from about 5 miles out of Slick Rock, up on top of the hill at Disappointment Valley,” Badoni said. “There was a well that you pumped at. Later on, it was found that it was contaminated. That was long after the people left.”

John worked in Naturita for several years and then got a job in Slick Rock. “He must have worked almost a year here until one day ‘he collapsed in the cave,’” Annie Henry told Badoni, who translated. “He couldn’t get well. Come to find out, it was lung cancer that took his life.” Hundreds of people lived across from the mines and mill in tents, campers and wooden shacks. Badoni used to think the area was part of the Navajo Nation because there were so many Navajos living there, he said.

Badoni held out a photograph of his family taken in 1960 at the mining camp. “I don’t know how long we lived here, probably a couple years or so. This dirt road down here going around the bend, there used to be a trailer court and a liquor store,” he said.

For Doris Coolidge, it was her first look at where her late husband of 53 years, William Coolidge, lived and worked with his father Calvin Coolidge.

“He said they would go down to the river and take a bath.

They also would drink that water. His dad would bring home rocks — I think they lived in a small trailer — and use them to decorate,” Doris Coolidge said.

Orphelia Thomas, community liaison for Haven Home Health Care in Farmington, works with many former uranium miners and their families.

Some of the wives have told her stories about living in the mining camps. ”‘We made our house out of whatever we could find, whatever was laying around,’” they told her.

“An individual out in Tuba City, she has a picture of one of the houses and a picture of her husband and how he would dress going to work. A white shirt with the sleeves cut off, jeans, and a hard hat was all he had to go to work in,” Thomas said.

A herd of longhorn mountain sheep grazed in the field where Badoni and Henry searched for their home sites and recalled their loved ones walking to work at shift change, just as the sun was coming up over the dust-covered valley.

“We lived right about here,” Badoni said, turning over a piece of weathered wood with his tennis shoe. “There was a mine right there,” he said, pointing in the direction of a metal building about half a mile away. “You can see all of those tailings pushed off. When the rain came through here, the rain would wash those tailings down. It goes down to a ravine and creates a good pool. All the kids from here would jump into that pool down there,” he said.

There were four or five mines in the same area, more farther down the mesa and others high up on a mesa across from the mining camp. The tailings at those, too, still remain.

Badoni pointed out a rusted transloading station beside the road across from the river. “See that chute right there? They were bringing uranium down and dumping it down into that chute, and then the semi-trucks would go underneath it and they would empty it out and take it out of the valley, uncovered of course,” he said.

“This whole valley was a lot of activity people living here, the kids playing, and trucks always coming out. They even brought in City Market because this whole place was boom ing,” he added. “A lot of these Navajo men were in their prime wage-earning years. When they passed on, they were diagnosed with lung cancer or various types of lung ailments.”

Thomas looked around at items left behind by the families — tent rings, wood stoves, a broken iron skillet, dust pan and automobile parts.

“There’s evidence all around that there’s families that lived in this area,” she said. Although the wives and children were exposed to radioactive materials, the U.S. Department of Labor “doesn’t see that there’s families that were involved,” she added.

Badoni said first responders to the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 have already been compensated by the federal government. But many Cold War uranium workers, their families and downwinders are still waiting, with the deadline fast approaching to apply for federal benefits from the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, and a set of amendments that still haven’t made it to the floor of Congress.

“On my father’s deathbed, I was talking with him at his house and he told me if he had known that uranium was going to take his life, he wouldn’t have worked in it,” Badoni said.

“What you have here, to me, is genocide. The government knew about it (radiation hazards) but they failed to tell the families and the workers that one day it was going to take their life.”