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---March 25, 1992---
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A waste disposal company called ICU is seeking a government license to bury 50,000 cubic yards of asbestos waste in the ground on private land near Huerfano Mountain in northwestern New Mexico, an area held sacred by Navajo people.

"Huerfano Mountain is a really sacred place to Navajos," says Lori Goodman, a Navajo from Durango, Colo. "They're building a dump where Changing Woman was born," she says. Changing Woman is an important figure in Navajo creation beliefs.

By now everyone expects such proposals by non-Indian waste haulers seeking to dump toxic wastes on Indian lands.[1] But some people still hold out hope that governments can act to curb the worst excesses of human greed and stupidity. Isn't that what governments are for? they ask.

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that has been mined from the deep earth since the first commercial mine opened in Quebec province in Canada, in 1879. That year 300 tons were produced, but the demand for asbestos grew steadily until production reached four million tons per year by 1970. Asbestos is composed of long thin fibers and it makes an excellent insulating material. Most of the millions of tons of asbestos mined from the ground this century have been used to insulate pipes in electric power plants, chemical factories, oil refineries and drill rigs, and in ships. It has also been used extensively in automobile brakes and clutches, and in hundreds of places where its resistance to heat and to chemicals made it highly useful. Asbestos is "inert," which means it stays around unchanged for a long time--essentially forever.

Unfortunately, asbestos is highly dangerous to animals and humans. When you breathe in an asbestos fiber and it enters the deep part of your lungs, your body reacts to it by forming a lump around the fiber. The lump forms slowly, sometimes taking 10 to 20 years, so you can be exposed to asbestos for a long time before you realize you've got a problem. Once you get such an asbestos fiber in your lungs, the fiber remains with you for the rest of your life and goes with you to your grave. If you get enough fibers in your lungs, the resulting lumps make breathing difficult; you wheeze and cough and have trouble catching your breath. These lumps also reduce the blood supply to your lungs, which stresses your heart, so your heart grows larger and becomes more likely to fail. At this point you have a disease called "asbestosis" and you will be miserable for the rest of your life because there is no cure for this disease.

You do not have to be exposed to asbestos for a long time to develop asbestos disease. There are medical cases on record of people who worked with asbestos for only three weeks as a summer job and later developed fatal asbestos disease. There are also many well-documented cases of people who never were exposed to asbestos in the workplace, yet developed asbestos disease. They simply lived within half a mile of an asbestos factory. Many other people have developed asbestos disease simply because they lived in the same house with someone who worked in an asbestos factory; the worker brought asbestos home on his clothes and his wife and children got sick as a result.[2]

Asbestos fibers also cause a different set of problems besides asbestosis--cancer of the lung, and cancer of the thin lining on the outside of the lungs (a type of cancer called mesothelioma). There is absolutely no doubt that asbestos causes asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

People learned about asbestos the hard way. The first case of asbestosis was diagnosed by a doctor in London, England in the year 1900--just 21 years after commercial production of asbestos began. Unfortunately this first case was regarded as a medical curiosity and was ignored. The next medical report didn't appear until 1924 and it, too, was generally ignored. Many people were getting asbestos-related diseases during this period, but it was mistaken for tuberculosis or silicosis, the hard-rock miner's disease. During 1927-1931 a series of medical reports from Great Britain described asbestosis in detail and the small lumps in the lungs came to be known as "asbestos bodies." By 1930 there were at least 50 articles in the medical literature describing human lung disease caused by asbestos.

In the U.S. during the same period (1927-1931) knowledge of the dangers of asbestos developed rapidly. As early as 1928, insurance companies began requiring a special increased premium to provide life insurance to asbestos workers. In 1930, the Raybestos-Manhattan Company, the second largest producer of asbestos in the U.S., took chest x-rays of 126 of its workers and found asbestosis disease in 67 of them and early signs of asbestosis in 38 others. The company did not publish this information, and did not advise its workers about their health problems. During three decades of workmen's compensation lawsuits, lawyers uncovered documents revealing that many asbestos producers knew as early as the 1930s that asbestos was deadly to their workers. For nearly 50 years asbestos manufacturers followed a policy, which they called "hush hush," by which they agreed to suppress evidence of asbestos-related dangers.[4] Historian Paul Brodeur calls it "a fifty year history of corporate malfeasance and inhumanity to man which is unparalleled in the annals of the private enterprise system."[3]

In 1964 Dr. Irving Selikoff published a now-famous study of 1117 insulation workers. Among them were 392 men with more than 20 years exposure to asbestos, and 87% of them had asbestosis. That same year Selikoff published another study of 632 insulation workers showed that lung cancer was occurring among them at seven times the normal rate, and gastrointestinal cancer at three times the normal rate. In 1978 the U.S. Public Health Service sent letters to every physician in the U.S.--all 400,000 of them--alerting them to the fact that asbestos caused serious, irreversible and often fatal lung disease. By this time, insurance companies were estimating that perhaps 1.5 million cases of fatal asbestos disease had been caused by the "hush hush" policy of the asbestos producers.

Still asbestos companies continued to sell asbestos, and industrial firms continued to purchase it.

Now, as old machinery, old ships, and old oil drill rigs turn to junk, the asbestos in them and on them presents a major hazard. Where can this old asbestos be locked away safely forever? Government's first instinct is to bury dangerous problems in the ground. Out of sight, out of mind is the prevailing philosophy. Since asbestos remains hazardous forever, and since no knowledgeable person believes any landfill will remain secure for the duration of the hazard, the conclusion seems inescapable that an asbestos dump is a time bomb with the fuse already lit. Therefore government approval of asbestos dumps appears to be an expression of the same philosophy that motivated the asbestos producers when they conspired for nearly 50 years to cover up evidence of harm to their workers: hush-hush.

The plan in New Mexico is to bury 50,000 cubic yards of asbestos, wrapped in two layers of plastic, each layer 6 mils thick (the same thickness as a heavy-duty garbage bag you can might buy at any grocery store) and then "cap" it with ordinary dirt three feet (91 centimeters) thick. The dirt will then be seeded to try to grow vegetation, to try to hold the soil in place. We do not know the exact characteristics of the proposed site near Huerfano Mountain, but if it matches the characteristics of reclaimed coal mines nearby,[4] the rate of soil erosion will be between 0.2 and 2.0 centimeters per year, meaning that the plastic baggies of asbestos will be exposed to the sun within 50 to 500 years. The plastic baggies will degrade rapidly, and then large quantities of asbestos fibers will begin blowing throughout the region. Humans, wildlife, and domestic animals will then have the opportunity to breathe asbestos fibers, and thus to develop lung disease.

Of course prairie dogs or other natural forces may disrupt the site much sooner and release the deadly asbestos. No one really knows precisely how the Huerfano Mountain asbestos catastrophe will develop, but it seems inevitable that it will, if the project goes ahead as planned.

The only real solution to this problem is to store asbestos in steel-reinforced concrete buildings built above-ground where they can be observed continually. (See RHWN #260.) Every century or so the buildings would have to be replaced to protect the environment. Does government have the sense and the strength to impose real solutions? Time will tell.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.

[1] For example, Valerie Taliman, "The Toxic Waste of Indian Lives," COVERTACTION No. 40 (Spring, 1992), pgs. 16-22. For further information about the Huerfano Mountain proposal, contact CARE (Citizens Against Ruining the Environment), c/o Lori Goodman, 188 Highland Hill Drive, Durango, CO 81301; phone (303) 259-3164.


[3] Paul Brodeur, "Annals of Law; The Asbestos Industry on Trial," a four-parts series in THE NEW YORKER June 10, 1985, pgs. 49-101; June 17, 1985, pgs. 45-111; June 24, 1985, pgs. [37-77;] July 1, 1985, pgs. 36-80.

[4] Stephen Wells, "Instrumented Watersheds in the Coal Fields of Northwestern New Mexico," in Stephen Wells, David Love and Thomas Gardner, editors, CHACO CANYON COUNTRY FIELD GUIDE (Socorro, NM: American Geomorphological Field Group, 1983). Thanks to Paul Robinson at Southwest Research and Information Center for this.

Descriptor terms: huerfano mountain; asbestos; nm; navajo; native americans; asbestosis; cancer; lung disease; health; raybestos-manhatten company; landfilling; gastrointestinal cancer;

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