‘Léétsoh dooda’: 40 years after spill, 3 generations unite against uranium
By Colleen Keane
Special to the Times
RED WATER POND ROAD, N.M.
There are now three generations affected by the 1979 United Nuclear Corp. tailings spill. And on July 13, they showed they are united in urging a uranium-free future.
Northeast of Church Rock, New Mexico, in the Coyote Canyon Chapter, dozens of cars and trucks took Highway 566 and drove 12 miles north of Red Rock Park, then turned onto a dirt road that led to a large tented area where the 40th Uranium Tailings Spill Commemoration was held.
The annual event serves as a reminder of what tribal communities are left to deal with after uranium and other extractive industries pull out. In the early morning hours of July 16, 1979, the United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium waste dam broke, dumping 94 million gallons of radioactive liquid and 1,100 tons of uranium debris into a wash that connects to the Rio Puerco and eventually to the Little Colorado River. Following the Rio Puerco, the toxic spill rushed downstream past Diné homes, fields and grazing areas in Church Rock, Pinedale, Manuelito, New Mexico and Sanders, Arizona, and other areas along the way. It’s considered the largest release of radioactive waste in the country.
The 40th commemoration, hosted by the Red Water Pond Road Community Association, was a forum for elders, youth, advocates, researchers, scientists and policy makers to speak out about the devastating uranium legacy, which includes decades of mining activity and mine water discharge that date back to the 1940s.
“It is a 70-year legacy of pain and heartache,” said Sunny Dooley, who traveled from Chichiltah, New Mexico, to attend the commemoration. “The only way we are going to have impact is by becoming a collective voice.” An estimated 175 people along with international visitors from Japan attended the event.
The Red Water Pond Road community is located very close to the United Nuclear Corporation uranium tailings pile and two abandoned uranium mining sites – the Kerr-McGee uranium mine and UNC’s northeast Church Rock mine, now owned by General Electric. Studies have found that living near operating and defunct uranium mills and mines increase the risk for cancers, hypertension and autoimmune diseases.