On the 44th anniversary of the Church Rock uranium spill, Navajo families walk in remembrance
It’s quiet as the walk down Red Water Pond Road begins, except for the sound of footsteps crunching in the pale yellow dirt.
Members of the Navajo Nation in this northern New Mexico community are dealing with the fallout from a uranium spill that happened here more than four decades ago.
Navajo families who live near the site of the Church Rock spill are walking to commemorate the 44th anniversary of the disaster.
Seams of yellowish-brown rock ring the canyons and hillsides around us.
Some people carry banners and signs that say things like “No mining on sacred land,” and “Keep uranium in the ground.”
“My husband – he lost sisters, brothers, to cancer,” says Lorinda Dennison, one of the people out walking this morning. “And my husband is right there carrying the banner. So I'm just helping support the family.”
Dennison says some of her family live on Pipeline Road, another community close to the tailings pond where the Church Rock uranium spill first occurred.
On July 16, 1979, a dam wall that had been holding back millions of gallons of radioactive water and debris from United Nuclear Corporation mines broke, releasing the material into the Puerco River.
The contaminants traveled downriver to Navajo County, Arizona, and onto the Navajo Nation, seeping into groundwater and killing livestock and crops.
In 2015, a Navajo researcher testing wells along the Puerco River measured uranium levels that were 43 parts per billion, well above the EPA’s maximum contaminant level threshold of 30 parts per billion for drinking water.
Decades after the initial spill, community members, federal officials and supporters are out walking in the early morning heat to the site of the original dam breach in remembrance of the disaster.
After a while, a resident of Red Water Pond Road named Larry King halts the procession and gestures to a nearby hill.
“Here, this huge pile of dirt here,” says King. “It's not a natural hill, it's all the waste that was dug up around about maybe six or seven homes because they found out the homes were contaminated.”
King says that since 1967, the uranium mining companies UNC and the Quivira Mining Corporation have operated mines and mill sites throughout his community.
“UNC did a bad, bad job, a terrible job in doing the reclamation when the mine shut down,” he says. “So that's why there's a lot of waste that's left behind by the mill, by the UNC.”
Brandon Nichalson is a remedial project manager for the U.S. EPA Region 9.
They’re working on cleaning up waste from the Quivira Mine site. Nichalson says that the agency believes the best plan for removing the mine waste is to truck it to a neighboring landfill.
“And one of them right now, I think to be our recommended alternative, is to move that to the Red Rock landfill facility in Thoreau about 40 miles down the road,” says Nichalson. “So we're kind of just starting the community engagement with that. And we'll be discussing that more in the future.”
According to Nichalson, removing the waste and transporting it to the Red Rock facility will take about three to five years.
The landfill isn’t located on trust land and would be permitted by the state of New Mexico.
But some in the community say they want the waste to be trucked farther from the Navajo Nation than where the EPA is currently proposing.
Soon, the crowd continues walking.
King says he’s frustrated with the current pace of the Church Rock mining area cleanup.
“44 years after the tailings spill, and we're not any closer to any remediation,” he says. “We still bring up the issue on doing some comprehensive health study along the Puerco Wash because the mill waste eventually ended up in the Puerco Wash.”
King was working in the Church Rock mining area as an underground surveyor for UNC on that summer day in 1979 when the dam broke.
“And at the time, this was a big moneymaker,” he says. “A lot of jobs were coming from here. But the thing, too, is we weren't given any warning about what kind of health – of how it could affect you, health-wise, if you're exposed to uranium.”
It’s well-known that uranium mining on the Navajo Nation has resulted in lasting health problems for miners and those living downwind of contamination.
Exposure to uranium waste can lead to radiation-based cancers and kidney disease.
The road the crowd is walking on eventually winds its way along the edge of a wide-open floodplain.
A few colorful tents along the side of the highway mark the end of the walk.
Underneath one of them, King addresses the gathering through a portable speaker.
“So you can see that little black mound of dirt, that's about where the dam breached,” he says. “So that whole place contained three cells. And the mill site itself was on the opposite side of the road.”
King adds that he’s long been worried that the scale of the cleanup conducted since the dam breach hasn’t been sufficient.
“Since then, we've been advocating for comprehensive health studies for community members all along the Puerco Wash, all the way into Arizona,” he says. “Nothing has been done.”
The EPA will hold a public comment period on their proposed Quivira Mine cleanup plan this fall.
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