CHURCH ROCK, N.M. – Residents of this area gathered on July 19 to remember the 35th anniversary of the disastrous Northeast Church Rock Mine uranium-tailings spill.
The 1979 spill, which occurred when a tailings pond owned by the United Nuclear Corp. breached its dam, contaminated land and water, destroyed vegetation and brought myriad health problems to the surrounding communities — issues that continue to this day. More than 1,000 tons of solid waste and 93 million gallons of solution — all of it radioactive —poured out into the Puerco River, traveling across the Navajo Nation.
Numerous speakers discussed the horrific legacy left by uranium-mining on the reservation.
“Some of our families live within 500 feet of the Northeast Church Rock Mine,” said Edith Hood, one of many members from the Red Water Pond Community Association in attendance. Hood said the site is “the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s] highest-priority abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo Nation.”
“Others in our community live near the former United Nuclear Corp. uranium-milltailings facility, which is a federal Superfund site and the site of the worst uranium-waste spill in U.S. history,” she said.
“Many of us are part of the same extended family that has lived in the area for seven generations – long before the uranium mines came,” said Annie Benally, also of the community association. “We take our name from the Navajo road that serves our community, and which itself has been found to be contaminated with radioactive mine wastes. Many of our members suffer from environmentally induced post-traumatic stress disorder from simply living in a contaminated area.”
Red Water Pond Community Association member Jackie Bell-Jefferson doubted that plans to revegetate northeast Church Rock would work.
“Revegetation of the affected area and the mine site will not be successful unless the area receives enough water and attention,” she said.
Association President Larry King said restoring the area will take money and time, and constant monitoring is necessary.
“Since the UNC tailings will remain in our community indefinitely, (those responsible) and the U.S. EPA must do everything possible to reduce our residents’ exposure to contaminated materials during and after reclamation,” King insisted.
Representatives of other community groups were also present, including the Southwest Research and Information Center, Leonard Nez Uranium Awareness Commemorative Event, Blue Water Valley Downstream Alliance, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, the ANSWER coalition and the Community Involvement Fund.
Founded in 2007, the Red Water association is working to bring about “a respectful, peaceful community enjoying a healthy environment.”
“We advocate to have monitoring of air, water, vegetation and grounds after the restoration of ‘long-term protection’ of human health for many more generations,” King said. “We also advocate for an annual report back to the community or public hearing for the Navajo Nation.”
Bell-Jefferson said she wants to make sure something like this never happens again.
“We want assurances that enough money will be available for the full completion of this project. We do not want to be informed in three or four years that the money has run out, but the job is not yet completed,” Bell- Jefferson said. “UNC left its mess for us to live with for more than 25 years, and we want assurances that this won’t happen again.”
Tribal members should be trained to help monitor the area, Bertha Nez said. Local residents should be trained and hired as cleanup workers, she added.
Seraphina Nez, a member of the Leonard Nez Uranium Awareness Commemorative Event, recalled how her father, who died in 2012, once worked at the mine and used to come home coated with dust. Her family is from Blue Gap-Tachee.
Seraphina said her dad and mother lost seven of their 11 children – all before they reached the age of 36. Six died from “Navajo neuropathy,” a rare disease that was once erroneously believed to be genetic but that was actually caused by exposure to radiation. Symptoms include the shriveling of hands and feet, muscular weakness, stunted growth, infection and ulcers. Seraphina said her mother suffered a miscarriage with the seventh child.
Leonard Nez would bring rocks home to show his children what he was doing, his daughter said. “My dad didn’t know those rocks were poison.” He never knew the risk he was taking working with uranium, Seraphina said.
Seraphina’s mother, Helen Nez, 76, said she and Leonard lost their first child in 1968.
“My daughter, Dorenta, never walked; she had unusual puffiness in her face, her cheeks,” Helen recalled. “And she was very thin in her extremities. Her abdominal area – her stomach – was enlarged.”
“Dorenta, my sister, was just three years old when she died,” Seraphina added.
“All of the [children’s] symptoms were identical,” Helen said. “Today, my heart hurts and I think about the past. To have six children die of the same symptoms and now know what it is. One white doctor in Albuquerque said, ‘Well, if you live in some sort of contaminated area that might be the cause’.”
The Nez home is located half a mile from the abandoned uranium mine.
“I remember the blasting. I remember the dust filling my dishes. We didn’t have laundry close by. Sometimes I washed my children’s clothes with [her husband’s] contaminated clothes,” Helen added.
As her children died, Helen said, she was faced with accusations from local doctors.
“The indication was, ‘Is there incest?’” she said, as her voice caught. “‘Is your husband related to you? Is he your brother, your uncle? Is that the reason your children have these symptoms?’ They never apologized, only the speculation of incest.”
Additionally, Leonard’s work for the mine was “off the books,” and uranium-miners were paid in goods and food for their families, Helen said. Many never received either paychecks or cash for their work. Now, there are no records whatsoever of Leonard’s time in the uranium mines.
“Working for the uranium, he was only given a piece of white slip, a piece of paper, to take to the local store to purchase food and other things,” Seraphina said.
With no record of his work history, there is little hope for the Nez family to gain compensation for the loss of their children.
Seraphina said, “My dad told me, ‘My heart is broken and I blame the government’.”
Another area resident, Floyd J. Baldwin, said he saw “some pretty weird things” while growing up, such his own uncle having to be cared for like a child because he never grew normally. “Getting my diaper changed next to my uncle [getting his changed] – my own uncle – who’s a full-grown man. And I was just a little kid. I didn’t know it was wrong or anything. But as I grew up. I noticed that’s not normal. That doesn’t happen.”
The abandoned uranium mines scattered across the area are an ongoing concern, said Moroni Benally. “There’s a bunch of [abandoned uranium mines] where I’m from. It harms our earth, water and bodies. There’s an imbalance in that. It hurts our water and earth and disrupts the very essence of Diné. We can’t have a healthy future without a healthy land.”