The Superfund chapter

Pinedale is haunted by its nuclear legacy

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

(Editor's note: In an effort to chronicle the beauty and diversity of the Navajo Nation, as well as its issues, the Navajo Times has committed to visiting all 110 chapters in alphabetical order. This is the 63rd in the series. Some information for this series is taken from the publication "Chapter Images" by Larry Rodgers.)

PINEDALE, N.M., Dec. 5, 2013

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(Cindy Yurth - Navajo Times)

Pinedale resident Don Frank points out the entrance to the abandoned Northeast Church Rock Mine, the highest-priority Superfund site on the Navajo Nation. A cleanup plan for the mine was unveiled in 2011, but Frank said not much work has been done yet. (Times photo — Cindy Yurth)

Pinedale is a beautiful place to live ó if you don't mind being in sight of the highest-priority Superfund site on the Navajo Nation.

You get used to it, said Pinedale native Don Frank.

"My dad and two uncles worked there (at the Northeast Church Rock Mine)," Frank said. "Pretty much everybody worked there at one time."

That includes Chapter President Willie Norton, one of Frank's uncles.

"Dark and wet," he said when asked to describe life 1,900 feet below the ground. "Scary."

Not as scary as it probably should have been. Norton, who started working in the mine in 1977, said no one told the miners or the maintenance guys like him that uranium was dangerous.

Pinedale at a Glance

Name: The chapter is in a dale, a broad valley, although it's not particularly piney. Its Navajo name is Tó Bééw’’sgan’ (Hardened Mud around the Water)

Population: 1,109

Land area: One of the Navajo Nation's smallest chapters at 41,000 acres

Major clans: Tsi'najinii, Tó' D’ch'’inii, Honágháanii, Tábaahá

Famous sons: Former Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan, Code Talker Frank Marianito

History: According to oral history, this community along a tributary of the Rio Puerco was founded by a young woman of the Honágháanii Clan who escaped from the Long Walk and ran into another group of escapees in this area, one of whom she married.

Unfortunate claim to fame: the largest abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo Nation, now its highest-priority Superfund site

"People brought the rock up to build sheep corrals and horse corrals," he said.

The result is that you won't find too many men over 60 in Pinedale Chapter.

"Most of them passed on before they could get compensated (under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act)," Norton said. "Their families aren't pursuing it."

Norton's been lucky; as a maintenance specialist, he worked in the best-ventilated parts of the mine, where the water pumps were located.

"I've never been sick a day in my life," he boasted, "other than hangovers."

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to clean up the 125-acre mine site, which will involve moving 1.4 million tons of contaminated soil into a capped pit. Looking over the fence at the mine site, nothing appears to be happening yet.

"They filled in the shafts," said Frank, "and moved some of the buildings. Other than that, it looks pretty much like it has" since it closed in 1982.