- Church Rock uranium mill spill
United Nuclear Corp. Church Rock
The United Nuclear Corporation Site near Church Rock in McKinley County, New Mexico
Geography City Gallup, New Mexico County McKinley State New Mexico Coordinates: Information CERCLIS ID NMD030443303 Progress Proposed 12/30/1982 Listed 09/08/1983 Construction
09/29/1998 Superfund sites
The Church Rock Uranium Mill Spill occurred in New Mexico, USA, in 1979 when United Nuclear Corporation's Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam. Over 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste and millions of gallons of mine effluent flowed into the Puerco River, and contaminants traveled 80 miles (130 km) downstream to Navajo County, Arizona. Local residents used river water for irrigation and livestock and were not immediately aware of the toxic danger.
In terms of the amount of radiation released, the accident was comparable in magnitude to the Three Mile Island accident of the same year. It has been reported as the largest radioactive accident in U.S. history, but the governor refused the Navajo Nation's request that the site be declared a federal disaster area. The event received less media coverage than that of Three Mile Island, likely because it occurred in a lightly populated, rural area; some scholars suggest there were class and racial aspects to the neglect as well, since it affected primarily poor Native Americans.
In 2003 the Churchrock Chapter of the Navajo Nation began the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project to assess environmental impacts of abandoned uranium mines; it found significant radiation from both natural and mining sources in the area.
On July 16, 1979, United Nuclear Corporation's Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam, and 1100 tons of radioactive mill waste and approximately 93 million US gallons (350,000 m3) of mine effluent flowed into the Puerco River. The contaminated water from the Church Rock spill traveled 80 miles (130 km) downstream, through Gallup, New Mexico and reaching as far as Navajo County, Arizona. The flood backed up sewers, affected nearby aquifers and left stagnating, contaminated pools on the riverside.
The Army Corps of Engineers concluded in its report to Governor Roth of New Mexico that the principal cause of failure was differential settlement of the foundation beneath the dam wall, with resultant formation of cracks by which acidic tailings fluid penetrated the embankment. Variation of features of dam wall construction from approved designs, plus critical variations in tailings pond operation procedures from those approved, contributed to the dam wall failure.
Cracks were first noted in the dam wall in December 1977, which were sealed with bentonite in February 1978. Further cracking was noted in October 1978. Neither the facility owner, nor the State Engineer were formally notified of the episodes of cracking prior to the dam failure.
In terms of the amount of radiation released, the accident was larger in magnitude than the Three Mile Island accident of the same year. It has been reported as "the largest radioactive accident in U.S. history". Shortly after the breach, below the dam radiation levels of river water were 7000 times that of the allowable level of drinking water. In all, 46 curies of transuranic elements and heavy metals were released  The Navajo Nation asked the governor to request disaster assistance from the US government and have the site declared a disaster area, but the governor refused. This limited the disaster relief assistance to the Navajo Nation.
Although steps were taken at the time of the accident to notify the public in accordance with a state contingency plan, local residents were not immediately aware of the toxic danger. They were accustomed to using the riverside for recreation and herb gathering, and children often waded in the river. Residents who had waded in the water went to the hospital complaining of burning feet and were diagnosed with heat stroke. Livestock were found dying. Prior to the accident, local residents used river water for irrigation and livestock. In 1981, the state and federal government ended the assistance of trucked-in water which they had provided. Farmers had little choice but to resume use of the river.
For some types of cancers, since the 1950s studies have shown that the Navajo have had significantly higher rates than the national average, generally associated with contamination from the uranium mines and exposure of workers. No ongoing epidemiological studies have been done at Church Rock.
In their article in the American Journal of Public Health in 2007, Doug Brugge, Jamie L. deLemos, and Cat Bui proposed that the lack of peer-reviewed studies of health effects of the accident, compared to well-studied events such as Three Mile Island, may be related to such factors as it occurring in an "early stage in the nuclear cycle" (mining, milling and processing), which was dependent on a large labor force, and it happened in a "low-income, rural, American Indian communities", rather than near highly populated areas.
Clean up was performed according to state and federal criteria. About 3,500 barrels (560 m3) of waste materials were retrieved (estimated at only 1%). But, according to Paul Robinson, "very little of the spilled liquid was pumped out of the water supply". The Navajo Nation appealed to the governor to request that the president declare the site a federal disaster area, but he refused, which reduced the aid available to people on the reservation. The uranium mill site closed in 1982, related to the declining uranium market.
In 1983 the site was entered on the National Priorities List of the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund investigations and clean up efforts, as radionuclides and chemical constituents were recognized as entering local ground water. In 1994 the EPA extended its efforts with a study of all known uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.
In 2003 the Churchrock Chapter of the Navajo Nation began the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project to assess environmental impacts of abandoned uranium mines, and build capacity to conduct community-based research with policy implications. Its May 2007 report found that significant radiation remaining in the area, from both natural and mining sources.
In 2008, the US Congress authorized a five-year plan for cleanup of contaminated uranium sites on the Navajo reservation. The non-profit Groundswell Educational Films is hosting online Webivideos of the clean-up effort.
- Navajo Nation
- The Navajo People and Uranium Mining
- Uranium mining in New Mexico
- Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release
- ^ a b c Shuey, Chris et al (2007). REPORT OF THE CHURCH ROCK URANIUM MONITORING PROJECT 2003-2007, CHURCHROCK CHAPTER, NAVAJO NATION, SOUTHWEST RESEARCH AND INFORMATION CENTER and NAVAJO EDUCATION AND SCHOLARSHIP FOUNDATION, Window Rock, Navajo Nation (Arizona), USA.
- ^ a b c d Second Five-Year Review Report for the. United Nuclear Corporation. Ground Water Operable Unit EPA, September 2003
- ^ a b c d e f g h i Doug Brugge, PhD, MS, Jamie L. deLemos, MS and Cat Bui, BS, "The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities", American Journal of Public Health, September 2007, Vol 97, No. 9, pp. 1595-1600, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2006.103044 PDF version
- ^ a b c d Brendan Giusti, "Radiation Spill in Church Rock Still Haunts 30 Years Later", The Daily Times (Farmington, New Mexico), July 16, 2009, Section: Local
- ^ Ferenc Morton Szasz, Larger Than Life: New Mexico in the Twentieth Century, UNM Press, 2006, pp.82-83, ISBN 0826338836
- ^ a b Roth, Colonel Bernard J (9 October 1979). Review Comments and Recommendations to Geotechnical Investigational Reports - Church Rock Tailings Dam. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Army Corps of Engineers.
- ^ Bruce E. Johansen "The High Cost of Uranium in Navajoland", Akwesasne Notes New Series, Spring - April May June - 1997, Volume 2 #2, pp. 10-12.
- ^ "Comparison of the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Sequoyah Fuels Corporation, and Church Rock Releases", American Journal of Public Heath, 2007, 97(9) pp. 1595-1600.
- ^ Chris Shuey, MPH "The Puerco River: Where Did the Water Go?", Southwest Research and Information Center, 1986
- ^ Chris Shuey, MPH Uranium Exposure and Public Health in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation: A Literature Summary Southwest Research and Information Center, 02.27.07, rev.10.14.08
- ^ Linda Gunter, "Remembering the Forgotten Nuclear Accident," Z Magazine, September 2009, pp 6-7
- ^ "Abandoned Uranium Mines On The Navajo Nation", EPA Region 9: Superfund, retrieved July 30, 2010
- ^ "Addressing Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation", Superfund - Region 9, EPA
- ^ Felicia Fonseca, "Navajo woman helps prompt uranium mine cleanup", Associated Press, carried in Houston Chronicle, 5 September 2011, accessed 5 October 2011
- The Return of Navajo Boy Webisodes, Clean-up of uranium contamination at Navajo Reservation
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