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Church Rock

It happened in 1979 at a uranium mine in Church Rock, New Mexico. Church Rock is some 20 miles northeast of Gallup. The dam on a huge evaporative tailings pond near a moderate-sized arroyo leading to the Puerco River burst, sending ninety million gallons of radioactive liquid and over eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill waste cascading toward Gallup and Chandler, Arizona. It amounted to a flash flood of radioactive contamination coursing down the Puerco. This wall of bad water and grit contained traces of heavy metals and isotopes of uranium, thorium, radium, and polonium…. Ninety million gallons of wastewater suddenly exploding through a dam into the Puerco River was like a twenty-seven-story tower of grit and liquid, an acre square, roaring through the landscape. The force was so powerful, observers recorded, that sewers were backed up and manhole covers lifted in Gallup, some twenty miles away. It was a catastrophe of huge proportions.

"Except for bomb tests, Church Rock was probably the biggest single release of radioactive poisons on American soil," Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon wrote in their book Killing Our Own. The Church Rock disaster took place some three and a half months after the malfunctioning of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island and thirty-four years to the day, oddly, after the first atomic bomb was set off at the Trinity Site, south of Carrizozo, New Mexico. The massive release attracted little attention in the national media. Those immediately affected were 350 or so Navajo families who watered their sheep in the Puerco River. Many of their animals had highly elevated levels of radioactivity in their bodies. Children were admonished by public health officials to keep out of the river bed and not play on its banks. Traces of radioactive debris were found as far as seventy miles down the Puerco, making a vast stretch of the river unusable for years (p. 139).

The tailings pond and the uranium mine, operated by United Nuclear Corporation (UNC), were up and running again five months after the spill. The same pond area was used, Wasserman and Solomon report, resulting in "constant seepage—up to eighty thousand gallons of contaminated liquid per day." UNC closed the mine in the early 1990s (p. 140).

  • The Nuclear Information and Resource Service cites a 1,500 percent increase in testicular and ovarian cancer in children living on Navajo lands near uranium mines, a 500 percent increase in bone cancer in children exposed to uranium, and a 250 percent increase in bone cancer in children exposed to uranium, and a 250 percent increase in leukemia among people of all ages on the Navajo Reservation (p. 159).

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  Fence around the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) ion exchange building with a sign that reads: "Restricted Area" in English and Diné. November 2006.
  UNC ion exchange building. The company has changed hands over time and now no one takes responsibility for clean up. November 2006.
  Tony Hood shows me around the United Nuclear (“United Unclear,” he jokes) Mine Site in Northeast Church Rock. When he was a kid, his grandparents grazed about 100 goats and 200 sheep on this land. This canyon is a natural pen—his uncle could let his horses run free but confined here. It is now dotted with different colored flags signifying testing locations, ore deposits or hot spots. April 2007.
  The Church Rock spill moved through this wash off of state highway 566 to the Puerco River. February 2007.
  Ned Yazzie—who was relocated from his home near the detritus of the mill—stands on the state highway that runs through Church Rock. He looks toward the now-abandoned ion exchange building. October 2006.
  Teddie Nez chops wood outside his home in Church Rock. In the middle left of the photograph, covered with snow, sits one of the tailings piles in the immediate vicinity. In an attempt to cleanup the radiation, the EPA will remove the tailings, as well as the top six inches of dirt from his, along with his neighbors’, property. The house will be wrapped in plastic and the family lodged in a motel in nearby Gallup. Until then they will continue to do as they have always done: wash off fruit (in case of contaminated dust), not stay outside too long, disallow kids to play in the arroyo where runoff flows. January 2007.   *
  At the Church Rock Chapter House. October 2006.
  Scotty Begay displays a piece of his archive. Pieces of paper that are tangible proof of practices and actions, cataloguing his feelings of culpability and his anger, his worries for the future of those exposed, the water contaminated, and his attempts to inform and expose. February 2007.
  Scotty Begay outside his home in Church Rock. He worked in the local uranium business for over twenty years, from underground mining to mill work to reclamation; he is now a community activist, attempting to inform and expose what he knows based on his personal history. February 2007.
  The gray dirt is low-grade ore, or waste. April 2007.

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* In north central New Mexico, tailings piles have collected from as many as a thousand uranium mines, most of them on Native American lands. These tailings piles are not benign. They contain more than 80 percent, by some reckonings, of the ore’s radioactive content (p. 140).
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