Letter from the Colorado Plateau — From the October 2017 issue

States of Decay

A journey through America’s nuclear heartland

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I. THE HIGH DESERT

Someone told me I could find a reclaimed uranium mill in Tuba City, so I drove up from Flagstaff through the Arizona badlands. The town was easy to find. It sits along the only major east–west corridor of the Navajo Nation, an area roughly the size of Panama but immeasurably lonelier and therefore, in the mind, vaster. There are ten grocery stores for more than 200,000 people, most of whom live in arid, unpaved hamlets that wink in and out of view from passing cars. Turkey vultures ride the currents above layer-cake hills of shale and silt.

Uranium ore in the abandoned Hummer Mine, Paradox Valley, Colorado (detail). All photographs by Balazs Gardi

My waitress at the Tuba City Denny’s was too young to remember the mill in operation, much less the years when lung cancer was exceptionally rare among the Navajo rather than a leading cause of death, but she told me it was probably somewhere east of town. After parking along the highway and hiking into the desert, I found it: a field of uniform black rocks, like some glinting alien moonscape. Yellow signs were blazoned with the traditional hazard symbol for ionizing radiation. One indicated that beneath this engineered mound were 2.25 million tons of mill waste, most of it the pulverized rock slurry that is a byproduct of making yellowcake, and which will exhale clouds of radon gas for a fair approximation of eternity. The slurry is interred in impoundments and protected by an elaborate system of layered sand, soil, and rock, where it will sit for thousands of years. There are often complications. Tuba City’s cleanup is not yet thirty years old, but waste is already leaking into the aquifer beneath the site. Nor could the area be called uninhabited, even if the nearest homes were sagebrushlike specks on a distant slope. Just outside the perimeter fence, sun-faded beer cans and scorched asterisks marked the campsites of heedless drifters.

I spent the night farther north, in Blanding, a dry town with three Mormon churches. In the morning I stopped in at Hunt’s Trading Post, which advertised native crafts and espresso. The owner, Debbi, chatted while I browsed the turquoise. Nearby Hunts Mesa was named for her father. “He did some prospecting up there,” she said. “Everybody in Blanding has a father or an uncle who did. Nobody knew anything about radiation back then.”

Debbi and her family were downwinders. Radioactive ash from test sites in Nevada had snowed across the reservation and the Four Corners in the Fifties and Sixties. Dairy yields in those days were rich in iodine-131. “I could’ve gotten some money,” she said of the lawsuits that followed, “but I didn’t want the hassle.” Her aunt and several cousins had breast cancer, but Debbi reckoned that the men had gotten the worst of it, particularly the thousands of Navajo miners who served as canary labor for military contractors and the first uranium barons. They started dying off in droves in the Seventies.

Still, it had been good work if you could get it, she said. “At the time we thought, ‘It’s just rocks.’ ”

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lives in Berlin. His work on this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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