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biota"Leetso," the Yellow Monster:
Uranium Mining on the Colorado Plateau

researched and written by MaryLynn Quartaroli

According to the Navajos, a monster is something that gets in the way of a successful life. These monsters were born when an evil act was committed, when people transgressed. In ancient times, Navajos were destroyed by monsters which roamed their traditional lands. The Hero Twins gained the wisdom and skills to slay these monsters.

The first monster the Twins destroyed was Yeetso ("Big Monster"), who roamed the sacred mountain Tsoodzil (Mount Taylor) in New Mexico. One of the best ways to overcome or weaken a monster is to name it. The Navajo name for uranium is leetso, meaning "yellow brown" or "yellow dirt," after the color of the uranium-bearing ore. Tsoodzil is where the world's largest underground uranium mine would be built. Leetso, the yellow monster, was let loose in Din'tah, in Navajoland.

The Uranium Rush

Uranium mining in Grand Canyon

Old truck probably used in a mining operation during the uranium rush of the 1950s. Photo 2000 by Ray Wheeler.

When Anglo-American miners appeared on the Colorado Plateau in the late nineteenth century, they extracted uranium, radium, and vanadium from small amounts of pitchblende and carnotite ore. Manual methods of mining, including the use of hand picks, sorting by hand, and transportation by burros or donkeys, limited the scope and impact of mining. During the early twentieth century, new mining methods included the use of diesel powered equipment in underground mines and in transportation of ore by trucks to extraction mills. Thus began a dramatic increase in the impact of uranium mining on the areas resources.

The development of a boomtown economy (from the 1940s through the 1960s) on the Colorado Plateau coincided with federal government involvement in uranium mining, providing financial incentives such as guaranteed ore prices, haulage and mine development allowances, production bonuses, fringe area and grade premium allowances. The 1950 discovery of uranium in the Grants, New Mexico, area by a Navajo shepherd named Paddy Martinez, followed by the 1952 discovery of the Ma Vida Mine in Lisbon Valley prompted a well supported “uranium rush,” much of which occurred on reservation lands. The Navajo, Acoma, and Laguna tribes negotiated royalty agreements that required the use of local workers in mining operations, providing an economic boon after the devastating stock reductions during the 1930s.

Uranium mining operations were established on the Colorado Plateau in many locations, including some in Arizona (the Carrizo Mountains, the Lukachukai Mountains, Tuba City-Cameron area), in New Mexico (Churchrock-Crownpoint, the Ambrosia Lake and Jackpile districts on Mount Taylor), in Colorado (Naturita, Slick Rock, Durango, Grand Junction), and in Utah (Monument Valley, Moab, and Monticello).

Massive earth-moving equipment produced an exponential increase in the size of the mines and in the transportation network connecting mines to mills and markets. In the case of Anaconda’s New Mexico operations, a 65-mile railway link connected mine to mill. Depths of underground mines doubled or tripled, to 1000 feet, 1500 feet, and then 2700 feet. The boom-time changed everything: size of the leases, depths of the mines, number of mill recovery facilities, number of people involved in the industry, and the impact to the land and water resources.

The First Ghosts

Working conditions in the mines were abysmal by any standard. Miners, millers, truckers, and their families were exposed to radiation levels as much as 750 times the 1950 standards. By the 1950s, the first ghosts began to appear – ghosts of the victims of lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, pneumoconiosis, silicosis, tuberculosis, birth defects, kidney damage. Navajo called the ailments “red lungs” for the red they coughed up, or “uranium on the lungs” and “radiation around the heart.” (see Memories Come to Us in the Rain and the Wind: Oral Histories and Photographs of Navajo Uranium Miners and Their Families).

Leetso, the yellow monster, had released evil into Din'tah. The industry went bust in the ‘80s; the ghosts continue to congregate. A flood of eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid poured down the Rio Puerco drainage at Church Rock, New Mexico, on July 16, 1979, thirty-four years to the day after Leetso’s birth.

The disaster at Church Rock was not an isolated event. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledges ten accidental releases of tailings solutions into major watercourses in the region between 1959 and 1977. Runoff of rainwater from tailings piles also contributes to the contamination of surface water. In 1984, a summer flash flood in Hack Canyon washed four tons of high-grade uranium ore into Kanab Creek and on to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. In many communities, abandoned open pit uranium mines serve as stock tanks and swimming holes.

Atlas tailings pit along the Colorado River near Moab

Aerial view of the Atlas Uranium Mill tailing ponds with Moab visible across the Colorado River. Photo 1999 by Ray Wheeler.

Downstream from most of America’s uranium mines and mills sits Lake Mead, a huge reservoir that supplies drinking and irrigation water for southern California, Las Vegas, and parts of Arizona. The 40-year-old Atlas mill tailings pile at Moab, Utah, located 750 feet from the Colorado River, covers 130 acres and leaks on average 57,000 gallons per day of contaminated fluids into the river. The radioactive isotopes that are released in the mining and milling process have very long half-lives and are slowly making their way downriver into the sediments and water of the lake. The implications of a contaminated western water system are catastrophic.

Surface water is not the only threatened resource. Seepage from tailings ponds and “direct injection” of wastes into the subsurface contribute to ground water contamination. Wells that tap into these aquifers provide much of the drinking and irrigation water for the arid Colorado Plateau. Both people and livestock are affected by drinking this water and eating plants that are irrigated with it.

The mining and milling process greatly altered the land itself. The removal, transportation, and milling of vast quantities of rock resulted in the deposition of radioactive tailings piles at mine sites and at mill facilities. By 1978, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) recorded 140 million tons of on site tailings piles at twenty-two abandoned and sixteen operational mills. Continued production resulted in the addition of six to ten tons of tailings per year. One site, a 1.7-million-ton tailings pile, covers seventy-two acres in the center of Shiprock, New Mexico. Durango and Grand Junction, Colorado, and Monticello, Utah, are some of the other affected communities.

These tailings piles threaten air quality in various ways. Radioactive dust from the piles, dispersed by the persistent regional winds, settles long distances from the sites. The piles produce significant quantities of radon gas, a deadly substance that has caused a five-fold increase in lung cancer among uranium miners. The use of tailings as building and landfill materials was widespread throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Whether covered by dirt to mitigate the pollution, or left uncovered, these tailings piles present a threat to the regional plant, animal, and human communities.

Slaying the Monster

To slay the monster, to provide healing from disease and death, the Navajos say one must restore nature’s balance and harmony. The scars on the land remain. There are over 1,100 abandoned mines in the Navajo Nation alone. Which corporation or governmental agency is responsible for reclaiming the mining and milling sites continues to be an area of controversy? The Department of Energy’s Uranium Mill Tailing Remedial Action Project (known as UMTRA) is charged with the cleanup of all uranium mill sites. The Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Department has reclaimed 441 mines to date, and the work continues. The Laguna Pueblo and its Laguna Construction Company reclaimed the Jackpile mine with funds supplied by the mining corporations. Many sites remain open, accessible, and deadly.

In 1992, the Navajo Nation president issued an executive order to reiterate the moratorium on uranium mining activity. Leetso, the yellow monster, is again raising his head. The world market for uranium is strong; the world’s reactors require 70,000 metric tons of U3O8; current world production is approximately 46,000 metric tons. An operation to mine uranium in situ by leaching with an alkaline solution has been proposed in the Crownpoint and Church Rock communities in New Mexico. Fears of groundwater contamination resulted in litigation by an association of community members to challenge the project’s operating license. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that the mining company file an approved financial assurance plan to ensure cleanup of the mining site prior to commencing operation, which has effectively halted the project.

Will hzh (harmony and beauty) be restored and Leetso defeated once and for all? We do not yet know.

- MaryLynn Quartaroli


Benally, T. 2000. Navajo Uranium Miners Fight for Compensation. 8/24/00.

Brugge, D., Benally, T., and Harrison, P. 1997.Memories Come to Us in the Rain and the Wind: Oral Histories and Photographs of Navajo Uranium Miners & Their Families. Navajo Uranium Miner Oral History And Photography Project. Red Sun Press, Jamaica Plain, MA.

Eichstaedt, P. H. 1994. If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans. Crane Books. Santa Fe, NM.

Gilles, C., Bravo, L. and Watahomigie, D. Uranium Mining at the Grand Canyon – What Costs to Water, Air, and Indigenous People? 8/24/00.

Grand Canyon Trust. 2000. Atlas Mine Tailings: The Atlas site is the biggest, dirtiest tailings pile around, but it is not unique. 10/11/00.

Hahne, F.J. 1989. Early Uranium Mining in the United States. Fourteenth International Symposium: Uranium Institute (now World Nuclear Association)., 1/24/02.

Koerner, J. “The Yellow Wake of the Cold War.” Pp. 10-15 In: Utah State University Magazine. Summer, 2000, Volume 6, Number 2. Logan, UT.

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Wasserman, H. and Solomon, N. 1982. “Uranium Milling and the Church Rock Disaster.” In: Killing Our Own, The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Energy. 10/11/00.

Yazzie, E. and Zion, J.Leetso: the Powerful Yellow Monster. 8/24/00.