Sophie Rousmaniere and Jay Minton


Sophie Rousmaniere and Jay Minton

Growing up on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, Tina Garnanez was told not to play in or near the open mines near her home. Nobody told her why, or that they led to the death of her grandfather. 

Years later she found out they were uranium mines.

During the late 1940s, America began stockpiling nuclear weapons for the Cold War. To acquire the raw nuclear materials for these weapons, uranium mines opened up across the Four Corners region of the American southwest.

Many uranium miners, including Garnanez’s grandfather and great-uncles, worked in the mines on the Navajo Reservation, of which there were over 1000. Because jobs were scarce on the Reservation, uranium mining gave Navajo men a much needed source of income. The work also gave them something else: cancer. Garnanez’s grandfather and his brothers all died from various cancers that could be traced back to their work in the mines.

Yellow Fever, the new documentary by producers Sophie Rousmaniere and Jay Minton, follows Garnanez as she uncovers the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation. 

“She goes from being a curious family member looking at her family’s tragic past with uranium, and then becomes more active in the fight for environmental justice for her people,” Rousmaniere said, talking about Garnanez.

When the uranium mines first opened, the health risks for miners were unknown. In 1950, the United States Public Health Service began a broad study of the health risks attributed to working in the mines. Despite their involvement in the study, Navajo miners were widely uninformed of the health risks they faced in the mines. In 1962, the published study concluded that there was a direct correlation between lung cancer and working in a uranium mine. But for the many Navajo miners who were already suffering from cancer, the study came too late.

Radon is a tasteless, odorless radioactive gas that is a byproduct of decaying uranium, a process in which the radioactive element releases energy over time until it eventually becomes lead. When radon particles attach to dust in the mines, miners inhale the radon, which can collect in their lungs, causing cancer.

The dangers of uranium mining affect not only the miners, but also the people who live near the mines. Today radioactive waste remains on the Navajo Reservation, and it still poses a threat to people. The radioactive particles can spread through the air and seep into the soil and groundwater. The mines may no longer be active, but their after effects remain.

Rousmaniere began work on Yellow Fever in 2007, and began filming in 2009.

Minton, co-producer of Yellow Fever, became involved when, “as a new boyfriend,” he offered to provide music for the film. He soon took on a greater production role. 

“As I got more involved in the project I got more and more interested,” he said.

While filming in the Four Corners region, Rousmaniere and Minton traveled in a Volkswagen van. The vehicle was outfitted with a portable solar panel array, providing them with a mobile film studio and home on the road.

Their filming brought them to highly radioactive locations, including the site of the 1979 Church Rock uranium mill spill near Gallup, N.M., reportedly the largest radioactive accident in American history. It occurred three months after the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown. The spill occurred when a uranium mill’s tailings waste disposal pond overflowed, destroying the dam barrier that had been containing the radioactive contents. 

Over 1,000 tons of radioactive waste and 98-million gallons of water flowed into the Puerco River, carrying contaminants 80-miles downstream into Navajo County, Ariz.., where local residents used river water for crop irrigation and water livestock. The spill area in New Mexico remains highly radioactive, with some locations registering radioactivity levels 756 times higher than the normal level of background radiation.

Near the Church Rock spill epicenter, Garnanez met Teddy Nez, a Navajo suffering from colon cancer, who continues to live in the area despite the extreme radioactivity of the area. He has had feet of topsoil removed from his property to lower radiation levels.

“It’s bizarre,” Minton said. “Imagine living there every day.”

Rousmaniere added that many Navajo residents do not want to leave their homes, despite the radioactivity that threatens their health.

“The [Navajo] people are really connected to the land and sometimes they feel as if there is something transcendent that might protect them,” she said.

When Rousmaniere and Minton began visiting radioactive sites they were concerned about their own safety, but the more they learned about radiation, the less concerned they were about their own exposure. They also began to understand why people could continue living in places with high levels of radioactivity.

“You just go with it,” Minton said. “You know that you’re getting less radiation exposure than going on a long international airline flight, probably even going to the dentist... well, at least you hope you are. It’s a little bit creepy.”

Nuclear energy is currently a controversial topic. Proponents argue that it is a clean energy source capable of generating enormous amounts of power using relatively small amounts of uranium, thus making nuclear power worthy of exploitation. Opponents argue that nuclear power is a dangerous source of energy, as was made clear during the recent nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. Yellow Fever will add to this conversation by bringing to light an aspect of nuclear power that is often overlooked: the long term effects of living next to uranium mines.

“It’s the conversation that we want to provoke,” Rousmaniere said.

Yellow Fever also comes during a time where there is renewed interest in uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation. Rather than using men in mines like in the past, in-situ leaching is being considered. In-situ leaching is a process that involves pumping water and chemicals into the ground, thereby releasing the uranium from the underlying sandstone, and then pumping the uranium-chemical-water mix back to the surface. Using this form of extraction there is no risk to miners and their lungs, but in-situ mining could pose risks to underground water tables.

Rousmaniere has worked extensively as a filmmaker and freelance journalist studying Indigenous issues in countries around the world. She spent five years living in Southeast Asia.

“It was international travel that made me want to be a documentary filmmaker,” Rousmaniere said.

She has worked on over twenty documentaries in addition to short films and music videos.  Much of her work focuses on social and environmental issues.

Her film production company, Ironthorn Productions, has recently evolved into Issue TV, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization providing a media platform to expose current human rights and environmental issues from around the world. Issue TV also partners with other non-profit grassroots organizations in need of media assistance, providing them with free access to media tools. 

“We felt that we could use media as a tool for change in a deeper way by taking our tools and handing them over to people working on issues in a grassroots way,” Rousmaniere said.  Minton added: “Issue TV was inspired by voices that could use a stronger voice.”

Written by Ben Kreimer.

Interviews conducted by Ben Kreimer with editing by Tobias Grant with assistance from Danny Fast.

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