Saturday, July 6, 2019

40 Years Ago Church Rock NMex Uranium Tailings Spill, Does Its Effect Continue?

Written by NaBahe Katenay-Keedíniihii, July 2019

Almost every deadly and lethal releases of poison or lethal toxins in the U.S. are always put into obscurity and society tends to forget about them because the “official statements” said to do so. “There were no dangerous levels to the public that would cause harmful effects, BUT precautionary measures were taken.” Main tribal news and state media will reinforce the official conclusion. All such incidents would not matter whether it is heavy toxins in drinking water in Flint, Michigan or a toxic spill in the Appalachian mountain-top coal mining regions, and government concern normally favors corporate profits over the health of poor communities.

This happened in July 16, 1979 when the United Nuclear Corporation’s tailings pond broke at its Church Rock uranium mill, and tons of radioactive water and solids flooded down the Rio Puerco wash. A wash or an arroyo that passes through the city of Gallup, New Mexico then into numerous Díneh (Navajos) communities along the Rio. The actual flooding and the length of travel of this radiation was an unimaginable catastrophe. The spill traveled about 100 miles along, U.S. colonial corridor Route 66, or Interstate 40 in Arizona and Díneh country. And if you do not know about the nuclear life cycle and if you do, many forms of the deadly radiation last for tens and tens to hundreds and hundreds of years.

Much is out there about this tragedy and horribly nothing else is known about its size of impact since 40 years ago. The Church Rock uranium tailings spill was much larger, in terms of radioactive quantity, than the U.S. - Three Mile Island nuclear accident on March 1979. Church Rock release of radiation would have rank close to the melt down at Chernobyl, Ukrain in 1986.  Again like any pollution or mega contamination of the environment near or around poor population, responsible state agencies fumbled with corporate politics first instead of measuring out the magnitude of the lethal discharge and its potential outcome of health effects. 

But what does this have to do with Big Mountain Díneh which is a few hundred miles away from the Rio Puerco? 

A new U.S. government made Díneh community outside of Sanders, Arizona. The 1979 spill also passed through here. It is a modern day refugee settlement, and part of the federal government program of forced Indian removal. Here, the original relocatees and hundreds more descendants were settled here in a rural style community. These refugees were victims of the so-called “Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute” where nearly 18,000 Díneh were either uprooted or displaced from the late 1970s to the 1990s. Some refugees relocated from remote and pristine Big Mountain on Black Mesa also. Then about ten years ago it was discovered that the water sources in this big new reservation of Sanders had high concentration of radioactive contaminants. Waters in this region have never had this issue, but that was sort of the end of an evolving story. Navajo Nation tribal government and the U.S. immediately redirected the issue to promises of alternative wells which all sounded good. No one dared to asked, “Well where exactly did the radiation come from?”

Finally here is another one of my many theories about the state of nature and native histories. The structure of earth likely have played a role. The narrow and small basin of Sanders area was created by three geologic structures, the southward plunging of the Defiance Uplift, a northward plunging of the Torrivo Upwarp and the Chuska Mountain volcanic uplifting. They all facilitate the west ward flow of the Rio Puerco and on the west end of the basin, a west to east dipping of strata starts but the Rio wash continues over that. Sanders basin is spooned as the handle of the spoon is the path of Rio Puerco wash to the Church Rock uranium mill in 1979. Over time since the tailings spill, much of the radioactive contaminants have been reaching the spoon or bowl. Heavy metals like cadmium, aluminum, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, sodium, vanadium, zinc, iron, lead, and sulfates sank or settled in the basin. There were more lethal elements of radioactive uranium, thorium, radium, and polonium that accumulated and drifted down into the Rio’s alluvial fill.

The U.S. government and its collaboration with the Navajo Nation administration poses a hidden sinister backdrop to the magnificent tall cliff walls, and those native oriented but cheap tourist attractions along Interstate 40. And outside of Sanders, Arizona is the new extended Indian reservation where the ancestors’ past have long been forgotten, and why care about the past because Americana has erased those memories of the pristine high desert mesas and canyons of Big Mountain? Perhaps much radiation is yet to be announced, but hopefully the promises safer waters are in place. Our problems as “diverse” society continues in the areas of so-called activism and the dreams of surviving the onslaught of climate chaos. We all continue to not see a larger picture than what the media, which we all do not trust, presents. It seems as though official and “expert” conclusions still disable our thinking. The life span of the nuclear cycle from Church Rock 1979 may continue to inflict dangers to many not to just natives. 

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