Thirty years ago, on July 16, 1979, just weeks after the Three Mile Island reactor accident, and 34 years to the day after the Trinity atomic test, the community of Church Rock, New Mexico became the scene of another nuclear tragedy. Ninety million gallons of liquid radioactive waste and eleven hundred tons of solid mill wastes burst through a broken dam wall at the Church Rock uranium mill facility, creating a flood of deadly effluents that permanently contaminated the Rio Puerco River.
No one knows exactly how much radioactivity was released during the Three Mile Island accident. The site monitors were shut down after their measurements of radioactive releases went off the scale. Five weeks after it occurred, the mine and mill operator, United Nuclear Corporation (UNC), was back in business as if nothing had happened. Today, the Church Rock accident is acknowledged as likely the largest single release of radioactive contamination ever to take place in U.S. history (outside of the atomic bomb tests).
Why is the Church Rock spill—which contaminated fields and animals and made drinking water deadly—so anonymous in the annals of our nuclear history? Perhaps the answer lies in where it took place and who it affected.
Church Rock was a small farming community of Native Americans, mainly Navajo, eking out a subsistence in the arid Southwest. Nearby, UNC stored several hundred million gallons of liquid uranium mill tailings in a pond, waiting for evaporation to leave behind solid tailings for storage, when, on July 16, part of the dam wall collapsed, releasing a roaring flood of radioactivity.
Though it was both a predicted and preventable failing, steps were never taken to avert the disaster. UNC CEO David Hann, in later Congressional hearings, described the accident as "a risk and we undertook this." Several state regulatory agencies had remained silent in the face of warnings by UNC’s own consultant that the dam was vulnerable. When cleanup was demanded, UNC completed removal of just 1 percent of the spilled tailings and liquids. Stagnant pools where children played were found to have levels of radiation 100 to 500 times natural background. Sheep and goats were contaminated; wells and other drinking water sources were shut down.
However, the accident happened "far from civilization" in a remote area inhabited by a poverty-stricken and disenfranchised community of Native Americans. The avoidable radioactive contamination of the Navajo community—and likely well beyond it—went unpunished and largely unreported.
Today, the Three Mile Island Accident is remembered, marked, and rightly alluded to as an example of the deadly risks of nuclear power. Rarely is the Church Rock anniversary noted. Meanwhile, the long-term effects of this enormous contamination are not yet known, given that health effects resulting from radiation exposure can take decades to appear and can affect future generations.
Native American lands in the Southwest are riddled with disused uranium mine and mill sites. The communities have observed high levels of kidney diseases and cancers. Yet only one population-based epidemiological study of health effects associated with uranium mining has ever been conducted on the Navajo Nation. No health study has ever been carried out in Church Rock.
Instead, Uranium Resources Inc., which took over the property from UNC, is proposing to open a new, in-situ leach uranium mine at Church Rock. History is waiting to repeat itself.
Linda Gunter specializes in human rights and the nuclear power/nuclear weapons connection.