Early in the morning of July 16, 1979, a 20-foot section of the earthen dam blocking the waste pool for the Church Rock Uranium Mill in New Mexico caved in and released 95 million gallons of highly acidic fluid containing 1,100 tons of radioactive material.
| United Nuclear's uranium mine and |
mill within the Navajo Nation in Church Rock,
New Mexico. (Photo: EPA)
The fluid and waste flowed into the nearby Puerco River, traveling 80 miles downstream, leaving toxic puddles and backing up local sewers along the way.
Although this release of radiation, thought to be the largest in US history, occurred less than four months after the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown, the Church Rock spill received little media attention. In contrast, the Three Mile Island accident made the headlines. And when the residents of Church Rock asked their governor to declare their community a disaster area so they could get recovery assistance, he refused.
What was the difference between the Church Rock spill and the Three Mile Island partial meltdown? Church Rock is situated in the Navajo Nation, one of the areas in the US sacrificed to supply uranium for the Cold War and for nuclear power plants. That area and many others in the Navajo Nation are contaminated to this day. Another sacrifice area is the Great Sioux Nation, a region in the western part of the country comprising parts of 5 states, where thousands of open uranium mine pits continue to release radiation and heavy metals into the air, land and water.
This poisoning of the people in the Navajo and Great Sioux Nations has been going on for decades and has had serious effects on their health. Even today, it is unknown what the full effects are and what the impact is on the rest of the nation and world because the contaminated air and water are not limited by borders.
Most Americans are unaware of the story of uranium mining on tribal lands because it is a difficult story to accept. It is a story that includes the long history of human rights abuses by the United States against native indians and recognition of the full costs of nuclear energy - two stories the government and big energy have suppressed.
Many people think of nuclear power as a clean source of energy. It has been promoted as part of the transition from fossil fuels. But the reality is that nuclear power comes at a heavy price to the health of people and the planet. Like other forms of extractive energy such as coal, oil and gas, uranium needs to stay in the ground. Radiation and heavy metal poisonings are a hidden environmental catastrophe that is ongoing and must be addressed. But rather than studying the health effects and cleaning up the environment, private corporations are pushing once again to lift the ban on uranium mining.
Is Uranium Mining Poisoning the Bread Basket of America?
Thousands of open uranium mines first excavated in the 1950s continue to release radiation today. There have been inadequate assessments of the extent of contamination, but limited measurements done to date show ongoing leaks many times larger than the leakage from Fukushima. How did we get here?
After WWII, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created so that the United States could obtain uranium for weapons production domestically. The AEC guaranteed that it would purchase all uranium that was mined. A uranium boom ensued.
It is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of uranium in the United States is located on tribal land, particularly in the lands of the Navajo and Great Sioux Nations. Private corporations jumped in to mine these areas and, in parts of South Dakota, individuals started mining for uranium on their private lands unaware of the dangers.
Private corporations have set up thousands of underground and open pit uranium mines on tribal lands and hired local native Indians at low wages. Other than jobs, the uranium mines brought little benefit to these nations because the lands were given to non-Indian companies such as Kerr-McGee, Atlantic Richfield, Exxon and Mobil. Native Indians had little control over what took place.
Two Acts in the 19th century took the rights of self-determination away from the native population. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 allocated money to move Native Indians onto reservations, ostensibly to protect them from white settlers but more likely to give settlers access to natural resources. The reservations are also known as prisoner of war camps. In fact, the reservation in Pine Ridge, SD is registered as POW Camp 344.
A second Indian Appropriations Act in 1871 changed the legal status of Native Indians to wards of the Federal government, stripping them of recognition as sovereign nations and the right to make treaties. In order to make contracts for uranium mining on tribal lands, the Bureau of Indian Affairs created Tribal Councils to conduct negotiations. But the resulting contracts were not made in the best interests of the tribes.
The Native Indians who worked in these mines were not protected from exposure to radiation, nor were they adequately warned about the dangers. Though it was clear that radiation exposure was linked to cancer in the early 1950s, around the same time that the US Public Health Service also started studying the health of uranium miners, it was not until 1959 that lung cancer was mentioned as a risk in pamphlets given to the workers. In an unpublished doctoral dissertation, A.B. Hungate writes that the reasons for this are: "The government had two interests. First, it needed a steady supply of domestic uranium, and it felt that warning the workers of the hazards would result in the loss of the workforce. Secondly, it wanted an epidemiological testing program to study the long-term health effects of radiation."
Don Yellowman, president of the Forgotten Navajo People, described the extent of exposure to radiation and toxic metals. Native Indian miners would drink radioactive water that contained heavy metals dripping off of the walls deep in the mines. Some of the miners had to travel long distances to the mines, so their families would come with them. Children would play in the area around the mine, and family members would prepare and eat meals there. Other reports state that workers, primarily nonwhites, were ordered into the mines shortly after explosions were set off to gather up rocks and bring them out for processing. Also, miners would go home at night covered in toxic radioactive dust, exposing their families to health risks.
Uranium mining started in South Dakota on land included in the original treaties with the Great Sioux Nation in the 1960 and '70s. The Sioux were not included in negotiations for the mining and are still refusing to settle with the US government over land in the Black Hills that was mined. During the boom, the land was mined without regard for contamination as "large mining companies [were literally] pushing off the tops of bluffs and buttes."
A few decades after uranium mining began in the Navajo Nation, increased numbers of cancer cases, lung cancer in particular, began to show up in the miners. A 2008 literature review in New Mexico found that the "Risk of lung cancer among male Navajo uranium miners was 28 times higher than in Navajo men who never mined, and two-thirds of all new lung cancer cases in Navajo men between 1969 and 1993 was attributable to a single exposure - underground uranium mining. Through 1990, death rates among Navajo uranium miners were 3.3 times greater than the US average for lung cancer and 2.5 times greater for pneumoconioses and silicosis."
Though the health effects of radiation exposure were known, it took decades before steps were taken to protect workers. The mines were operated under lax laws established in the 1872 Mining Act. Health and safety regulations for the mines, such as requirements for ventilation, were not passed in Congress until the late 1960s. But even once they were law, the regulations were not enforced.
Beginning in the 1970s, miners and their families began to pursue legal solutions through the courts and Congress so they could be compensated for the effects of their radiation exposure. Many court cases failed, and Native Indians were excluded from hearings in Congress on miner safety. Finally, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) passed Congress in 1990.
RECA is desperately inadequate and restrictive. Until 2000, RECA only covered miners, not mill workers, and it does not cover families and others who lived near the mines. It also requires a very strict application process that is impossible for some to complete. A summary of RECA by academics Brugge and Goble states: "We believe that it is not possible to simultaneously apologize, set highly stringent criteria and place the burden of proof on the victims, as did the 1990 RECA."
Uranium Mine Pits Continue to Leak Radiation Today
Radiation and heavy metals from uranium mines continue to pollute the land, air and water today and very little action is being taken to stop it.
In the upper great plain states of Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, there are 2,885 abandoned uranium mines that are all open pits within territory that is supposed to be for the absolute use of the Great Sioux Nation under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with the United States. These open mines continue to emit radiation and pollutants that are poisoning the local communities.
According to a report by Earthworks, "Mining not only exposes uranium to the atmosphere, where it becomes reactive, but releases other radioactive elements such as thorium and radium and toxic heavy metals including arsenic, selenium, mercury and cadmium. Exposure to these radioactive elements can cause lung cancer, skin cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, kidney damage and birth defects."
There are currently 1200 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation and 500 of them require reclamation. The greatest amount of radioactive contamination on Navajo land comes from solid waste called "tailings," which sits in large open piles, some as tall as 70 feet high, and was incorporated into materials used to build homes. Dust from these piles of waste blows throughout the land causing widespread contamination.
A 2008 study found that "mills and tailings disposal sites caused extensive groundwater contamination by radium, uranium, various trace metals and dissolved solids. One estimate is that 1.2 million acre-feet of groundwater (or enough to fill Elephant Butte Reservoir more than twice) have been contaminated in the Ambrosia Lake-Milan area from historic mine and mill discharges, and less than two-tenths of 1 percent has been treated to reduce contaminant levels." It is estimated that 30 percent of people living in the Navajo Nation lack access to uncontaminated water.
Charmaine White Face of Defenders of the Black Hills describes the situation in the Great Sioux Nation as "America's Chernobyl." She says, "A private abandoned, open-pit uranium mine about 200 meters from an elementary school in Ludlow, SD, emits 1170 microRems per hour, more than 4 times as much as is being emitted from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. " In addition, "Studies by the USFSshow that one mine alone has 1,400 millirems per hour (mR/hr) of exposed radiation, a level of radiation that is 120,000 times higher than normal background of 100 millirems per year (mR/yr)!" Cancer rates in Pine Ridge, SD, are the highest in the nation. More