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. 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
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.
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
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. 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."
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
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, 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
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.
 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.
 HAZARDS OF ASBESTOS EXPOSURE; HEARING BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON
COMMERCE, TRANSPORTATION AND TOURISM OF THE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND
COMMERCE, HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, NINETY-SEVENTH CONGRESS, SECOND
SESSION, JANUARY 19, 1982, SERIAL NO. 97-87 (Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1982).
 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.
 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;