Native People and the Church Rock Nuclear Spill

By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL

The Church Rock nuclear spill occurred on July 16th, 1979. It ranks as one of the world’s largest nuclear spills. It ranks as one of the world’s largest nuclear spills (Brugge, deLemos and Bui, 2007). The spill occurred at a uranium mine site near lands owned by the Navajo Nation. The spill is reported to involve more than 1,100 tons of solid radioactive waste and 95 million gallons of radioactive waste water. It is the largest radioactive/nuclear accident in US history, yet one that is widely ignored because its consequences were felt primarily by Native American peoples in the sparsely population Church Rock region of New Mexico (Brugge, deLemos, and Bui 2007).

The spill resulted when an earthen dam system used to contain nuclear mine waste constructed on a geologically unstable site, as acknowledged he owner of the site, United Nuclear, failed causing flood of radioactive waste that impacted the Puerco River and Navajo communities in the region. Following the spill, the Navajo people who used the Puerco River waters were notified of the spill by radio broadcast. However, many of those residents do not speak English. Groundwater contamination was a serious concern, and the level of radioactivity was so high that groundwater was unusable. A factor that limited aid to the Navajo was that the Governor of New Mexico refused to declare the incident a disaster. (For extended discussion of the spill see New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division document).

The community most affected was Church Rock, a small Navajo community on the Puerco River with a 1980 U.S. Census population of 1,633. Approximately 12 percent (200 local Navajo) of the population were employed in uranium mining. The largely low income community depended on the Puerco River as a water source. The extensive ground water contamination produced by the incident had serious consequences for the Navajo even prior to the spill (Brugge, deLemos, and Bui 2007; for US EPA’s site description).

The owner of the retention pond that produced the spill, United Nuclear, claimed financial hardship and was allowed to resume operations using the damaged retention ponds which continued to contribute to groundwater contamination in the area. Following further investigation the Church Rock spill site was added to the Superfund List in 1983.

Several studies have examined the effects of the spill on the local Native American population. In a review of relevant research, deLemos et al. (2009) noted that exposure to radioactive waste lead to elevated rates of kidney disease in the area (three times higher than expected). Contamination from the spill is widespread and exists in the Navajo waster supply and food chain. Other studies that have been undertaken with Native American populations exposed to radiation show elevated rates of lung cancer (Brugge and Goble 2002) among other serious consequences (Frohmberg et al. 2000; Dawson and Madsen 1995; Eichstaedt 1994; Shields et al. 1992; US EPA 2006). The health effects of the spill, however, are understudied, and little direct research addresses the health consequences of the spill on the Navajo (e.g., “One Upon a Mine: The Legacy of Uranium on the Navajo Nation” ).

To be sure, the Church Rock spill is one of the more serious uranium mining accidents to occur on American Indian lands. However, according to Quartaroli (2002) the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledges that at least ten additional incidents occurred in this region between 1959 and 1977. In 1984, for instance, a flash flood caused four tons of high high-grade uranium ore to wash into the Colorado River and Kanab Creek. In Moab, Utah, the 130 130-acre mine tailing site left by Atlas Mining leaks 57,000 gallons of radioactive contamination into the Colorado River daily. And Shiprock, New Mexico, is the site of a 72 acre, 2.7 million ton pile of mine tailings.


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