'We need to heal'

Conference a way to mend from 1979 uranium spill

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

CHURCH ROCK, N.M., July 18, 2013

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(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Bertha Nez, who has been battling uranium companies for years, holds up a poster Tuesday of pictures that shows a panoramic scene of what her front yard used to look like along with the title "This was our hill before the EXTREME MAKEOVER" written underneath it on Tuesday evening. Nez and her family will hold the 34th annual Redwater Pond Road Community Uranium Tailings Spill Commemoration on Saturday.

SECOND FROM TOP: A series of photographs, held by Bertha Nez, shows a pink frail-looking hairless newborn goat standing by its mother in April 2006. According to Nez, the newborn goat, lived for about 30 minutes before it died. The family burned its corpse.

THIRD FROM TOP: An air-monitoring sampler furnished by the USEPA sits next to Bertha Nez's home on Tuesday evening. The monitor samples the air for radiation levels.

T hirty-four years ago on July 16, 1979, the dam at the Northeast Church Rock Mine, owned and operated by the United Nuclear Corp., broke and released tons of radioactive waste into the Rio Puerco, eventually contaminating 80 miles of streambed.

It is estimated that approximately 1,100 tons of milling waste and 94 million gallons of wastewater - all radioactive - gushed into the Puerco, from here all the way downstream to Sanders, Ariz. The Church Rock spill is ranked second only to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in total radiation released, with cleanup of the site occurring only recently.

This Saturday community members from Red Water Pond Road Community, located in the northeastern portion of Churchrock Chapter, will host its annual Northeast Church Rock Environmental Awareness Conference.

Unlike the previous years in which the focus of the awareness conference was on the history of the spill, this year it's about healing the community from the legacy of uranium mining and milling that dates back to the Cold War Era.

The annual event was formerly known as "Uranium Legacy Remembrance Day," which commemorated the Church Rock uranium tailings spill.

"This convention will provide a venue to discuss and educate our people about the negative effects of uranium mining and the continued work to remove uranium from our immediate and surrounding areas to protect our precious aquifers," said Edith Hood, a member of the Red Water Pond Community.

Hood added that the healing of the community has yet to occur, because of the long-term effects of uranium, and the need for more education and awareness are the beginning steps to healing.

"We really want to focus on the water," she added. "We're trying to get the message out that the water, ground and soil is affected and it's affecting our health."

To make this point, the awareness conference on Saturday will begin with a prayer at 6 a.m. It will follow with a 5K run/walk from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. The run/walk is in remembrance of the many people from all walks of life, who have struggled and overcome the affects of radiation exposure such as cancer and for those who have journeyed on from Mother Earth, Hood said.

A lunch will be provided from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and thereafter, a public forum by various environmental groups, activists, and grassroots people on uranium and the impacts it has had on human and environmental health.

To find the forum take New Mexico Highway 566 to the dead end of the road, and take a right on Red Water Pond Road.

At the time of the 1979 spill, Hood worked at the nearby Kerr-McGee Mine as a prop technician under the company's geology department. Kerr-McGree operated a processing mill in Church Rock from 1974 to 1985.

As a prop technician, Hood used a portable instrument to measure the radioactivity of the mined ore. Her years of service with the company from 1976 to 1982 eventually led to her lymphoma diagnosis in 2006, she says.

"It did affect my health," she said. "It took something from me."

Similar to Hood, Peterson Bell, 58, remembers the 1979 spill from being a former employee of the Kerr-McGee Mine. He worked for eight years from 1974 to 1982.

"At the time we really didn't know we were going to have problems afterward," Bell said. "We just worked for the money. It was a high-paying job."

But now, he doesn't think it was such a good idea to work in those mines. He even disagrees with the proposed in-situ uranium development by Texas-based Uranium Resources Inc. to have operations in Crownpoint and Church Rock.

"I really don't want another uranium mine coming up again, even with in-situ uranium mining," he said.

The process of in-situ recovery, or ISR, requires injecting solvents into a uranium-rich rock layer, then pumping out the dissolved uranium. URI and its subsidiary Hydro Resources Inc. have a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to develop and operate an in-situ recovery project on the Section 8 and 17 properties located near both Crownpoint and Church Rock chapters.

"What we are trying to do is to get people who live around the area to get a message of concern that we're living around this uranium," Bell said.

It's not only a human health concern, but it's an environmental and animal health concern, he added.

"When you butcher, our livestock in the inside is yellow," he said, adding, "Right now they're proceeding with cleanup. We want to get the public to listen to us on Saturday and hear our concerns of what's going on."

Bell added he hopes one day the uranium-rich area would be remediated to pre-1960s mining conditions, when the area was "beautiful."

"We would like to heal," he said. "We need to heal the land, grass. We need to get the water as clean as possible."

Churchrock Chapter President Johnnie Henry, who has publicly endorsed URI's proposed uranium development through a supporting chapter resolution, was unavailable for comment as of press time to talk about the annual uranium awareness forum.

In previous interviews with the Navajo Times, Henry has said that he supports uranium development for economic reasons.

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or by email at abitsoi@navajotimes.com.

Film shows uranium mining through eyes of veteran

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK – Sophie Rousmaniere learned about how the Four Corners region is designated an "energy sacrifice zone" from providing video coverage of the defunct Desert Rock Energy Project.

She also learned in the process how the legacy of uranium on the reservation fits into that picture.

Rousmaniere's involvement with Desert Rock in 2007 brought her to the Navajo Reservation and that's when she began learning more and more about the environmental injustices of the people from here.

She read various sources of material including a book called, "If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans" by Peter H. Eichstaedt.

As she puts it, she saw the dichotomies between uranium mining and milling that was used during the Cold War Era from the reservation and the patriotism of Navajo veterans, particularly the famous Navajo Code Talkers, during World War II.

"The dichotomy is that 40 percent of Navajos don't have water and electricity," she said.

Naturally, that dichotomy made for a film she later produced with husband and sound composer Jay Winton, called, "Yellow Fever: Uncovering the Navajo Uranium Legacy."

The film follows Tina Garnenez, who returns to the reservation from duty with the U.S. Army, and finds her home a battleground for an ongoing nuclear war. The film explores the legacy and development of uranium production on the Navajo Nation through the lens of Garnenez.

Rousamaniere had met Garnenez and her family from being out in the field researching why and how the Four Corners region became an "energy sacrifice zone."

Growing up between Oaksprings, Ariz., and Farmington, N.M., Garnenez tells her account of how she lost 11 family members to cancer from being former uranium miners at the Vanadium Corporation of America mines in the Carrizo Mountains, near Cove/Red Valley, Ariz.

The 56-minute film begins with Garnenez's concern of a local water source possibly being contaminated by uranium because of its close proximity to the abandoned uranium mines in the Carrizos. To find out if the water source is contaminated, she takes samples in a vial and sends it in for testing.

Shot between late 2008 and April 2011, the film also captures environmental events that took place during that period of time. It highlights the fall of the proposed coal-fire Desert Energy Project near Burnham, N.M. the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant disaster of 2011, and encroaching uranium companies like Uranium Resources Inc.'s plans to conduct in-situ uranium mining in the Crownpoint and Churchrock chapters.

"It's ironic," Rousamaniere said of how Navajo veterans are committed to military service, while at the same time their land and resources are being exploited by the American economy for nuclear demand.

The film concludes with Garnenez, who uses the art of photography to cope with her post-traumatic stress disorder, receiving the water readings tested for uranium. And from the results, "the numbers were good," meaning that Garnenez can now continue carrying on the tradition of farming and herding sheep, like her forbears.

The film will be screened in 10 Navajo communities starting next month. The schedule is as follows:

  • * Aug. 15 in Kayenta
  • * Aug. 16 Monument Valley, Utah
  • * Aug. 19 Tuba City
  • * Aug. 20 Chinle
  • * Aug. 21 Tsaile at Dine College
  • * Aug. 22 Navajo Nation Museum,
  • * Aug. 23 El Morro Theatre
  • * Aug 24 Churchrock Chapter
  • * Aug. 26 Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock
  • * Aug. 27 Cove-Red Valley High School
    • Minton, who along with Navajo composer Randall Heavenlin provided the soundtrack to the film, recommends all viewers to watch the film. The filmmaker and music producer likes the film because it reveals the plight of people, its something he stands for.

      "I hate to see people being taken advantage of," Minton said. "Anything I can to work against that and make life better is fulfilling."

      He also says the music created for the film has a classical feel to it, which is unusual for films documenting Navajos.

      "It's a film that needs to be seen by everyone," Minton added. "I think they can take away some information that isn't really available in the mainstream media."

      As for Gilbert Badoni, who is featured in the film, he highly recommends tribal leaders to view it.

      "Our leaders need to be more oriented," he said, "They need to advocate more."

      In the film, Badoni leads widows and children of former uranium miners, known collectively as the Navajo Nation Dependence of Uranium Workers Committee, on a lobbying trip to Washington, DC in an effort to plead with Congress to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

      Badoni was raised next to a uranium mining campus in southern Colorado, and when he returned back home in Shiprock, he learned that his parent's house was built with uranium tailings material from the Shiprock Uranium Mill site.

      Through his lobbying work, Badoni has continually requested elected leaders for an in-depth epidemiology study of those living in uranium poison areas. It's still an ongoing fight, he said, adding that the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and University of New Mexico, only examines whether radiation exposure from uranium affects mothers and newborns.

      "What I am talking about is on the mining site," Badoni said. "That is the group we really need to study today."

      The film is made in partnership with Issue Television, Vision Maker Media and Akasha Entertainment.

      Information: www.yellowfeverfilm.com

      Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141.