Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

July 16, 2011

Navajos at Church Rock: Remembering the Devastating Uranium Spill

Photos copyright by Nikke Alexis, Navajo, published with permission at Censored News
Article copyright Brenda Norrell
Photos by Nikke Alexis
Censored News
CHURCH ROCK, N.M. -- Navajos gathered in Church Rock, N.M., on Saturday to remember the disease, death and destruction caused by the worst uranium tailings spill in history, which flowed down the Rio Puerco and poisoned the people and the land for decades after the June 16, 1979 spill.
Even as this tragedy is exposed, a new corporation, Hydro Resources, Inc., has received a license to mine for uranium in the Church Rock and Crownpoint, N.M., area, threatening Navajos aquifer and drinking water.
The Uranium Legacy Remembrance Day memorialized the tragedy that brought increased rates of heart disease, birth defects, cancer and death to Navajos.
"We the Dine', will never forget the devastation that uranium mining and processing has wrought on the health of our people, lands and water," was their message.
With no help to halt new uranium mining coming from the US legal system, Navajos appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in May. The Eastern Navajo Diné appealed to the international community to stop uranium mining in the Navajo villages of Church Rock and Crownpoint, New Mexico.
The Diné group filed an appeal with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on May 16, following 16 years of struggle. The Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM), represented by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), fought to overturn a mining license that was awarded to Hydro Resources Inc., by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
Currently, this license threatens the water supply of 15,000 people in the Church Rock and Crownpoint area. The majority are Navajos living in this area known as a checkerboard land area, because of the various types of land ownership. But the aquifer flows beneath the land and is the primary fresh water source for Navajos living on the Navajo Nation here.
“The HRI license marks the first time that any mining company in the U.S. has been federally authorized to mine uranium in a community drinking water aquifer,” said NMELC attorney Eric Jantz in a press statement.
“This aquifer provides the sole source of drinking water for the mostly Navajo community members represented by ENDAUM. By granting this license, the National Regulatory Commission has failed to uphold its mandate to protect the health and safety of all Americans.”
Navajos here want the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend HRI’s materials license “until such time as HRI has remediated the radioactive surface contamination on Church Rock’s Section 17, and the United States has taken significant and meaningful steps to remediate the abandoned uranium mines within the boundaries of the Church Rock Chapter,” the press release said.
Navajos are also pressing for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to submit, for public hearing, the comprehensive data of the baseline groundwater quality and other hydrological, geological and geochemical facts.
In addition, Navajos want the National Regulatory Commission to rescind HRI’s license to mine uranium on Church Rock Section 17 and Unit 1 sites. The Navajo Nation government has already passed a ban on uranium mining and processing. Further, Navajos here said that Navajo petitioner Larry King and his family should not be removed from Church Rock Section 17. In addition, they said there should be no forced disruption of his subsistence grazing practices or cultural activities.
The contamination from previous uranium mines has already resulted in high rates of cancer, heart disease and birth defects. Cleanup efforts are taking years, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating more than 500 sites in the western part of the Navajo Nation alone.
Navajos here said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ever been taken to task for its lax regulations.
The Church Rock Uranium Mill Spill occurred in New Mexico, USA, in 1979 when United Nuclear Corporation's Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam. Over 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste and millions of gallons of mine effluent flowed into the Puerco River. Local residents used river water for irrigation and livestock and were not immediately aware of the toxic danger. In terms of the amount of radiation released the accident was comparable in magnitude to the Three Mile Island accident of the same year and has been reported as the largest radioactive accident in U.S. History.
On July 16, 1979, United Nuclear Corporation's Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam and 1100 tons of radioactive mill waste and approximately 93 million gallons of mine effluent flowed into the Puerco River.[1][2] The contaminated water from the Church Rock spill travelled 80 miles downstream, traveling through Gallup, New Mexico and reaching as far as Navajo County, Arizona. The flood backed up sewers, affected nearby aquifers and left stagnating pools on the riverside.[2][3

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