Poison in the earth

1979 Church Rock spill a symbol for uranium dangers

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

CHURCH ROCK, N.M., July 23, 2009

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(Times photo - Leigh T. Jimmie)

Peterson Bell, 44, lives on Red Water Pond Road near the United Nuclear Corporation uranium mine. Bell drove his truck with a banner in a walk July 16 on State Route 566 as part of the 30th anniversary of the Church Rock uranium tailings spill.

It was about 6:30 a.m. when Church Rock Chapter Vice President Robinson Kelly heard water roaring in the Puerco River near his home and, simultaneously, smelled the "foulest" odor he could ever recall.

Kelly was up early to get ready for work at the now-closed Kerr-McGee uranium mine in Church Rock.

After he finished dressing, it was his usual routine to go outside and let the horses out of the corral. Like most of his neighbors, Kelly and his in-laws, Robert and Marie Craig, had livestock.

But that morning, July 16, 1979, his uncle told him to keep the horses in the corral.

Kelly went to the "Puerky," which in modern times has been more of an arroyo than a river, rarely running with water. But that day, it was filled to overflowing with rushing water.

He remembers looking at the sky and seeing no rain clouds. He also remembers the color of the water.

"It was yellowish," Kelly said. "I didn't know what was going on but it was an ugly feeling. I went to work and found out the dam broke."

The dam impounded the tailings at United Nuclear Corp.'s uranium mill. And when it failed, it released 1,100 tons of milling waste and 94 million gallons of wastewater - all radioactive - into the Puerco, eventually contaminating 80 miles of streambed.


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It remains the single largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, and its effect on the health of the area's people and animals has yet to be measured by any government or private entity.

On July 16, Kelly was among more than 150 people who gathered to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the spill with a day of activities organized by the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, a group of Native and other nonprofit organizations concerned about the effects of uranium development, the Crownpoint office of the tribe's Special Diabetes Project, and the chapters of Church Rock and Coyote Canyon.

The day began with a prayer and wellness walk, and ended with the showing of two films about the 60-year legacy of uranium mining and milling on the Navajo Nation.

Kelly recalled that his uncle died of "cancer of the foot" a few years ago, which he believes was the result of wading through the acidic, radioactive effluent in the Puerco to gather up the family's sheep.

It took until noon for the water level to drop enough for his uncle to cross the river. Like many of the local residents including children and elders who entered the water that day, his uncle later developed blisters and sores on his feet and legs.

Kelly's father worked as a uranium miner in Ouray, Colo., and the family lived next to the mine, he recalled. His father eventually died from lung cancer, he said, and his mother-in-law, also a Church Rock resident, died of cancer as well.

"So I have to be here, beside you, to support you," Kelly told the walkers as they paused near the old Church Rock mine operated by Kerr-McGee. The cleanup of the nearby mill is still bogged down in disagreement between UNC and federal regulators.

The route of the wellness walk offered a condensed look at the effects of uranium development in the area. It began at the residence of Teddy Nez, located between two hills made of uranium tailings, as finely ground as Saharan sand. When the wind blows, the tailings are spread over everything in the vicinity.

As Nez's neighbor Annie Benally, 51, started walking, she recalled that she was 8 or 9 years old when she first saw exploration teams driving around the area in their big trucks, looking for places to drill test holes.

Benally, whose labored breathing turned into wheezing, stopped walking and took out an inhaler. She, like many of the residents near the tailings, suffers from shortness of breath.

"This all began when they discovered uranium (in the Church Rock area)," Benally said as she looked at the hill of tailings and wiped perspiration from her forehead. Before the walkers reached the end of Nez's entry road, she stopped again and made the rest of the trip in the sag wagon that was following the walkers.

Unexamined consequences

The walk ended at the ranch of Larry King, another former Kerr-McGee employee. He recalled that two weeks before the disaster, he walked along the tailings impoundment and measured cracks in it that were large enough to put his feet in.

He did not realize then the threat they posed, he said.

King also noted that the Kerr-McGee mine routinely discharged water into the Puerco behind Nez's home. The water came from the mine, which would have flooded if not for the continual pumping. It flowed cool and clear for a short way down the river before disappearing into the sand of the riverbed, providing drinking water for livestock and wildlife both.

It was years before anybody thought about whether the discharge might also be radioactive.

But in 1994, the U.S. Geological Survey released the findings of a four-year study under the title, "Radioactivity in the environment: a case study of the Puerco and Little Colorado River basins, Arizona and New Mexico."

It confirmed that Kerr-McGee and other mines discharged radioactive water into the Puerco between 1960 and 1962 and 1968 and 1986.

While the study's overall conclusion was that radioactivity was naturally occurring in the area, and not caused by mining activities, it said a narrow zone of ground water beneath the Puerco River contained elevated uranium concentrations.

"The highest concentrations were nearest the mines and in samples collected in the first few feet beneath the streambed," said a summary of the study published on the USGS Web site at http://pubs.er.usgs.gov/usgspubs/wri/wri944192.

Uranium levels in the groundwater below the streambed in the Church Rock area were 67 times higher than normal in the 1960s - when uranium mining around Church Rock was just getting under way, the USGS found.

King recalled that a few years back, the community was putting in waterlines when he began to smell the familiar, abrasive odor of the mill effluent as workers dug into the earth.

When they reached a depth of 14 feet, the smell grew stronger and vertical streaks of yellow, "like the color of the T-shirts that everyone is wearing," were visible in the soil, he said.

The T-shirts handed out to participants at the spill commemoration were the color of yellowcake - uranium oxide - the product of the mill. Tony Hood, who designed the commemorative T-shirts, said he lives at "ground zero."

Hood explained that his maternal grandparents live west of the spill and his paternal grandparents live south of the old Church Rock mine.

"This whole place was my playground," he said.

Hood remembers when the geologist arrived in the late '60s and began testing for uranium.

"They were all over the place desecrating burial sites," he said.

At the time there were no paved roads to the community of Church Rock, about seven miles south of the mill site, Hood recalled. But when he returned from college in 1993, there were highways in the area and a local uranium boom was in full swing.

Hood got a job as an engineering technician at the Kerr-McGee mine and worked there for 11 years.

He learned that Kerr-McGee had been pumping water out of its uranium mine for about 30 years, which "sure impacted the water table" and dried up shallow wells in the area that people relied on for livestock water and sometimes, domestic use too.

Hood now works for the Indian Health Service as a driver/interpreter and he's learned that there's a "lot of cancer popping up" among his relatives, friends and community members.

Hood's father, a former uranium miner, suffers from pulmonary fibrosis. His sisters have lymphoma and his mother died from colon cancer.

But while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has spent years arguing with UNC over how much contamination is due to the spill, and how much cleanup of it or the old uranium mill is needed, there are no studies examining the health impacts on local residents.

In Hood's mind, there's no doubt about what - and who - caused the health problems he sees around him.

"The corporations think life is expendable," Hood said. "We don't. Life is sacred."

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