Shirley calls for complete cleanup of uranium wastes

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

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

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President Joe Shirley Jr. did not mince words about the July 16, 1979, event that befouled 80 miles of the Rio Puerco with radioactive waste from the United Nuclear Corp. uranium mill near Church Rock.

"What happened here will not be forgotten," Shirley emphasized loudly to a crowd of about 150 people who were attending the 30th anniversary of the spill last Thursday.

"This land was damaged because of uranium," he said. "Although the toxic release was hardly mentioned in the national press at the time and barely exists as a ripple in the collective memory of the United States, it will never be forgotten by the Diné and those living in downstream communities who still worry today about potential impacts of this tragic accident."

According to the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, which commemoration event, the spill affected the New Mexico communities of Pinedale, Church Rock, Gallup, Tsayatoh and Manuelito; and the Arizona communities of Lupton, Houck, Sanders and Chambers.

On July 16, 1679, an earthen dam at the mill collapsed, releasing 1,100 tons of mill tailings and 94 million gallons of wastewater into the river. 

"Today is the day I set aside to remember the 30th anniversary," Shirley noted. "We will stand behind the proclamation until the last contaminated dirt is removed."

The president was referring to his three-page proclamation recognizing July 16, 2009, as the "uranium legacy remembrance and action day to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Church Rock uranium tailings spill and 60 years of uranium mining impacts in Navajo Country and beyond."

The proclamation states that the Navajo Nation "reasserts its call to the federal government and private industry to appropriate the necessary financial resources to undertake and complete within the next decade a comprehensive action plan to resolve the uranium legacy throughout the U.S."


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He said the federal government and corporations must fund full reclamation of abandoned mines and mills, restoration of lands and water damaged by previous cleanup attempts of uranium mill tailings, replacement of contaminated homes and water supplies, health studies in communities impacted by mining, and compensation for illness and disability caused by uranium development.

"We still face huge challenges to reach our stated goal of removing all uranium contaminated materials completely out of Navajo Indian Country," Shirley said, noting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seems to favor a cleanup proposal that would leave most of the mining and milling waste around Church Rock on Navajo land.

The UNC mill is a federal Superfund site, but is not yet cleaned up. Now, according to Shirley, "The USEPA's apparent preferred remedy for the Northeast Church Rock (mine) site is to transfer the great bulk of the contaminated materials to the UNC Superfund site and take only a small portion of such materials, those materials labeled as 'principal threat waste,' to a disposal facility outside of Navajo Indian Country.

"If this ends up being the final remedy selected by USEPA, I want everyone here today to understand that the Navajo Nation will not look at this as a final solution, even for the Northeast Church Rock site.

"With the support of the local residents and the Navajo Nation EPA, we will continue to press for ways to reduce the volume and toxicity of the Northeast Church Rock materials that remain in Navajo Indian Country," he added. "We will continue to press for ways to reduce the volume and toxicity of the unlined mill tailings pile that sits at the UNC Superfund site. We will be tireless in our efforts.

"These are not unrealistic dreams," he emphasized. "The American people need to be educated and reminded about the disproportionate sacrifices made by Navajos, so that the United States of America could win the Cold War. Navajos are not asking for reparations. All we are seeking is justice."

Delegate George Arthur (Nenahnezad/San Juan/T'iistsoh Sikaad), chairman of the council's Resources Committee, addressed the group as lunch was served at the Church Rock Chapter House.

After dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan, the U.S. spent million to rebuild that country, he said, "But what have they done for us?"

"I get really upset sitting in congressional hearings," George added. "We need help addressing the uranium contamination of our drinking water, and health studies."

Shirley also called on federal and state governments to respect the Navajo Nation's decision to ban further uranium mining, asking them not to issue permits for new mines and mills within Navajo country."

Shirley, in his proclamation, also gave the "Navajo Nation's deepest appreciation to the many Diné individuals, communities and organizations, and the many non-Navajo individuals and organizations, who have worked tirelessly for 30 years to study the effects of the tailings spill and uranium mining in Navajo country, and who continually sought and demanded justice for those who have been adversely affected by the uranium legacy."

The Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment includes the chapters of Church Rock and Coyote Canyon and the following organizations: the Crownpoint office of the tribe's Special Diabetes Program, the Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance, Dineh Bidzill Coalition, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, Laguna Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment, Post-71 Uranium Workers Committee, SAGE Council, Sierra Club Environmental Justice Office in Flagstaff; and the Southwest Research and Information Center.

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