Editor’s Note: Submit your comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding the Churchrock spill cleanup online by December 28, 2020 here or during an NRC Public Meeting webinar on Dec. 2 or Dec. 9.
On July 16, 1945, the Trinity Test devastated communities in southeast New Mexico. Thirty-four years later at Three Mile Island Generating Station in Pennsylvania, the United States poured extensive resources into the largest and most expensive nuclear energy disaster of that time. Less than four months later, the country didn’t flinch when it came to the second largest ever release of radiation in the world. The United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) uranium mill “accident” was largely overlooked as it happened in a rural, community of color–a form of environmental racism. The Churchrock Spill occurred in a Diné community on the same day and at the same time as the Trinity Test, July 16th at 5:30 in the morning, but in 1979.
In an August 4, 2020 interview, Edith Hood, a Diné elder and matriarch, explains the impacts from the massive uranium spill and abandoned uranium mines and mill that she and others are still fighting to get cleaned up. Hood and her family are residents of the Red Water Pond Road (RWPR) community, north of Churchrock, New Mexico. They live between the former UNC mill, former UNC Northeast Church Rock Mine (NECR), and two former Kerr McGee/Quivira mines. The mill is on privately owned land, and the rest are on the Navajo Nation, near Navajo allotment, state, and federal lands–all within a few square miles.
“We were just children when the drilling companies came in…in the 1960s, to [do] exploratory drilling for uranium. So, by the end of the sixties, there were buildings going up, setting up the mine…United Nuclear on the south side and of course Kerr McGee, which today is known as Quivira.” Hood worked at Kerr McGee from 1976 to 1982. When asked about the dangers of her job, Hood replied, “Never did I hear ‘unsafe’ or ‘dangerous’… if I was educated about this, I wouldn’t probably have gone to work there.”
Since 2008, the U.S. government has been working with the Navajo Nation to clean up 523 abandoned uranium mines and four former mill sites on Navajo Nation. However, there are hundreds of additional contaminated sites, adjacent to or located within the reservation boundary, but not technically on Navajo Nation proper.
The federal agencies working on this cleanup include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bureau of Indian Affairs, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Department of Energy, Indian Health Service, Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, and Centers for Disease Control. The Navajo Nation (NN) agencies involved are NN EPA and Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Department. Other partners include NN Department of Water Resources, the University of New Mexico and Northern Arizona University, as well as the Hopi Nation.
Due to its proximity to the RWPR community, the NECR mine has been a high priority from the beginning, yet is nowhere near completion. The residents have insisted that wastes be moved off the Navajo Nation. Some remediation of the NECR mine has been conducted, including removal of contaminated soils from residences to lands that are not on Navajo Nation, but are close enough to be carried back by the wind.
General Electric, which acquired UNC, is responsible for remediation of the former NECR uranium mine and the former mill. The mill operated from 1977 to 1982 and released over 1,100 tons of radioactive sludge into the environment in the 1979 Churchrock Spill, and over 90 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste that flowed at least 100 miles westward into Arizona.
For cleanup of the NECR mine, GE proposes to move and permanently store approximately one million cubic yards of mine waste on top of existing mill waste and to transport approximately 32,200 cubic yards of more radioactive wastes offsite, most likely to the White Mesa Mill in southeast Utah which impacts another indigenous community. The White Mesa Mill is the only operating uranium mine in the U.S. and also doubles a catch-all nuclear waste storage just three miles from the Ute Mountain Ute community.
The former UNC mill site has been undergoing remediation and monitoring, but the offsite contamination from the Spill has never been adequately addressed. The Churchrock Spill was not widely broadcast on national news, like Three Mile Island. Downstream residents were not informed and not aware of the dangers of the liquid, as children unknowingly played in the wastewater. Ranchers also reported burns to their feet and ankles as they went into the water to get their livestock out. Hood recalls about the Spill, “For us in the community…it was not like today where you instantly get messages…we didn’t hear about it for a few days… not really knowing about radiation and the bad stuff that was in that liquid…At the time, it really was not alluring … for most people, not till they get sick, or not until something affects them, especially physically. Then, you know we were in a dangerous place.” Hood continues, “we never heard about the disadvantages or the bad stuff about this. All we knew [was] that mining was good economy for the country, and it’s all in spirit with…making the country look good. They’re making weapons, but you never know what went into those weapons. Till forty years later, you hear about the bad stuff…Our children were getting sick…All the elements that we use were affected.”
The RWPR community has been demanding clean-up of their area and all sites across the Navajo Nation for over a decade, including demands for new housing, funding for education, and a comprehensive health study. “We want the community and the impacted ground cleaned up… We want this concept of ‘hózhó’ back in the community, all across the Navajo Nation, with us included,” said Hood, referring to the traditional Diné teaching which encompasses the Diné philosophy of living in harmony and balance with the universe.
The proposed cleanup action to move mine waste to the mill site requires an amendment to the NRC materials license (SUA-1475) for the mill. GE submitted a license amendment application in September 2018. NRC notified the public of its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS), to conduct a scoping process, and request for public comments in February 2019. NRC held two scoping meetings in Gallup, New Mexico on March 19, 2019 and on March 21, 2019. At these meetings, locals expressed disappointment in the slow remediation process and strong opposition against moving mine waste on top of the mill waste, which they said is in a flood plain and alluded to the possibility of another Churchrock Spill.
On November 17 this year, the NRC announced it’s accepting public comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement of this proposal until December 28th with two virtual public comment meetings on December 2nd and December 9th. The Final EIS is expected in August 2021, and final decision in January 2022.
Since 2009, on the 30th anniversary of the Spill, the Red Water Pond Road Community Association has held an annual public event around July 16th with a sunrise prayer, walk, and talks to raise awareness about uranium mining, the spill, and cleanup. Due to Covid-19, this year’s event was canceled. According to Hood, next year they plan to “carry-on” and welcome “anyone who is doing something to help Mother Earth.”
“Church Rock, America’s Forgotten Nuclear Disaster, Is Still Poisoning Navajo Lands 40 Years Later”, VICE article by Samuel Gilbert (August 12, 2019)
The Church Rock Uranium Mill Tailings Spill: A Health And Environmental Assessment
Interview with Edith Hood (starts at 1:31:45)
Quivira Mines – Red Water Pond Road
Abandoned Mines Cleanup: Federal Plans
Navajo Nation: Cleaning Up Abandoned Uranium Mines, Northeast Church Rock Mine
Uranium-mine cleanup on Navajo Reservation could take 100 years
UNC–Church RockMill Uranium Recovery Facility
“Dam Break Investigated; Radiation of Spill Easing”, New York Times Article By Molly Ivins (July 28, 1979)
Application for Amendment of US NRC Source Material License SUA-1475, Volume 1, Prepared for UNC and GE by Stantec (10/14/2019)
Application Documents for Amendment of License SUA-1475 for UNC Mill Site Near Church Rock, New Mexico, Volumes I and II (09/24/2018)
NRC Intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) and conduct a scoping process; request for comment re: United Nuclear Corporation License SUA-1475 (02/08/2019)
Official Transcript: NRC Public Scoping Meeting for the Environmental Impact Statement for the Church Rock Uranium Mill Site (03/19/19)
Official Transcript: NRC Public Scoping Meeting for the Environmental Impact Statement for the Church Rock Uranium Mill Site (03/21/19)
NRC Seeks Public Comment on Draft Environmental Study on Waste Transfer at Church Rock Site in New Mexico, NRC Press Release (11/17/2020)
Environmental Impact Statement for the Disposal of Mine Waste at the United Nuclear Corporation Mill Site in McKinley County, New Mexico Draft Report for Comment (October 2020)
NRC Public Meeting Schedule for Dec. 2, 2020: Draft Environmental Impact Statement for proposed disposal of mine waste at the United Nuclear Corporation Mill Site
NRC Public Meeting Schedule for Dec. 9, 2020: Draft Environmental Impact Statement for proposed disposal of mine waste at the United Nuclear Corporation Mill Site
NRC United Nuclear Corporation Uranium Mill Site Status Summary
“Poison in the Earth: 1979 Church Rock Spill a Symbol for Uranium Dangers”, Navajo Times article by Marley Shebala (July 23, 2009)