Tragedy at Church Rock: Superfunds and the Marginalization of Navajos

In 1979 the United Nuclear dam in New Mexico failed and released over 1,000 tons of radioactive waste, greatly harming the Navajo community at nearby Church Rock.

Before sunrise on July 16, 1979, Navajos who resided in Church Rock, New Mexico, awoke to the sound of rushing water. They were confused, for there had been no rain to cause flooding of the nearby Puerco River. Unbeknownst to them, a nearby dam owned by United Nuclear had failed, releasing 95 million gallons of mine waste into the local water systems. This waste contained 1,100 tons of radioactive waste from a mill that processed uranium, killing sheep that drank it and burning the feet of children who waded in it. United Nuclear temporarily closed the mill and immediately the Indian Health Services urged people not to drink the water, but without assistance many poor families had no other options. Shortly after, the CDC tested the radiation levels of just six people, and when their results weren’t alarming, declared that no major threat to public health existed due to the spill. In spite of this, the Navajo Nation appealed to the state’s governor to declare a state of emergency in the Church Rock area, a request that was denied. However, when United Nuclear threatened to start laying people off if the mill remained closed, the state and federal government quickly complied to let mill operations resume just five months after the massive spill. The spill, and effects from the mill’s continued operation after, landed the Church Rock on the National Priority List for Superfund sites in 1983.

The neglect of Navajo lands is evident when one compares the response to another nuclear accident that happened just four months prior at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. A partial nuclear meltdown led to the evacuation of 140,000 people and to the state declaring a state of emergency, even though the release of nuclear radiation was significantly less than at Church Rock. Many government funded investigations were commissioned to understand the causes and the long-lasting effects of the accident in Pennsylvania, but such studies do not exist for the Navajo at Church Rock. The failure of United Nuclear’s dam was no mystery; cracks were reported in the 75-foot earthen structure nearly two years prior to the spill, but no action was taken. United Nuclear efforts to clean amounted to the removal of 3,500 tons of contaminated soil downstream, estimated to be just 1% of the total affected soil.

The site’s designation as a Superfund has hardly been effective at providing meaningful assistance. After 36 years as a Superfund, the EPA’s website still reports today that “groundwater contamination, and the migration of contaminated groundwater is not stabilized.” Many Navajos have long given up hope of government assistance. They have formed grassroots organizations like Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining to prevent future mining operations and aid contaminated areas. In 2017, the ENDAUM discovered a small Navajo community was still using contaminated water to hydrate and bathe their livestock. They found hairless sheep and insides of cows that had turned yellow. The Navajo had to burn the sick animals to avoid further contamination. Even though there is a lack of scholarly investigation on the effects of the spill, the experiences of Navajo show the terrible consequences on local health. One Navajo remarked on the high cancer rates in the reservation: “That’s why we drink. We think we won’t live long.” This has negative implications for the future Navajo, as one resident of Church Rock commented, “Our generation is afraid of having children. Cancer runs in our family, but it shouldn't.”

Americans generally don’t view pollution positively, but the time of putting production and profits over human lives must end. The current presidential administration values economic potential over the environment and public health, a trend that does not bode well for the neglected Navajo. The Navajo Nation deserves the reparation that disasters like the Church Rock spill demand as well as protection from future exploitation.

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Map

The map location is of the UNC mill site north of Church Rock.