Residents say they’ve been ignored even as the struggle with contaminated water and worry about having children.
By Samuel Gilbert; photos by Ramsay de Give
Early in the summer of 1979, Larry King, an underground surveyor at the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock Uranium mine in New Mexico, began noticing something unusual when looking at the south side of the tailings dam. That massive earthen wall was responsible for holding back thousands of tons of toxic water and waste produced by the mine and the nearby mill that extracted uranium from raw ore. And as King saw, there were “fist-sized cracks” developing in that wall. He measured them, reported them to his supervisors, and didn’t think anything more of it.
A few weeks later, at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1979, the dam failed, releasing 1,100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco and through Navajo lands, a toxic flood that had devastating consequences on the surrounding area.
“The water, filled with acids from the milling process, twisted a metal culvert in the Puerco,” according to Judy Pasternak’s book Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos. “Sheep keeled over and died, and crops curdled along the banks. The surge of radiation was detected as far away as Sanders, Arizona, fifty miles downstream.”
According to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report, radioactivity levels in the Puerco near the breached dam were 7,000 times that of what is allowed in drinking water.
The heavily contaminated water flowed over the river banks, creating radioactive pools. “There were children up and down the river playing in those stagnant pools, and they were deadly poisonous,” Jorge Winterer, a doctor with Indian Health Service in Gallup, New Mexico, said after the spill.
Forty years later, the Church Rock spill remains the largest single largest accidental release of radioactivity in U.S. history, worse in terms of total radiation than that of the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and second in world history only to the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, both of which have loomed much larger in the cultural imagination. The effects of the spill have lingered for an entire generation: In 2007, the Church Rock Uranium Mining Project found widespread contamination of drinking water sources in the Church Rock area.
Navajo residents say they have not been given the attention given to other victims of nuclear accidents, even as they remain under the catastrophe’s long shadow, dealing with poisoned livestock and ongoing health problems amid other aftereffects. “We have never been a priority,” said King. “Forty years after the spill and nothing has been done.”
“Our generation is afraid of having children,” said Faith Baldwin, who grew up on the Navajo nation surrounded by abandoned uranium mines. “Cancer runs in our family but it shouldn’t. Cancer, diabetes were nonexistent in Navajo rez.”
During the Cold War, Navajo lands provided much of the raw material for the burgeoning nuclear industry. From 1944 to 1986 some 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from mines, but as demand for uranium decreased the mines closed, leaving over a thousand contaminated sites, few of which have been cleaned up.
The cleanup process after the spill was also lacking. Only 1 percent of solid radioactive waste was removed, according to Paul Robinson, the research director at the Southwest Research and Information Center, and no compensation for the nearby residents was provided. In contrast, those affected by the Three Mile Island disaster were paid thanks to the company that operated that plant and its insurers.
“The Church Rock spill symbolizes the governmental and societal indifference to the impacts of uranium development on Indigenous lands,” said Jantz. “The Church Rock spill is the third largest nuclear accident after Fukushima and Chernobyl, and the largest in the US in terms of radiation released, but nobody knows about it.”
“Three Mile Island had more coverage and people were compensated right away,” said King. “I always say we don’t get the same attention because we live in impoverished native community… We live in a sacrifice zone.”
Read more at Church Rock, America’s Forgotten Nuclear Disaster, Is Still Poisoning Navajo Lands 40 Years Later