Commemoration Of Church Rock Tailings Spill - FCC Indian Telecomm Workshop
By Kathy Helms
CHURCH ROCK – For Larry King, an underground mine surveyor at United Nuclear Corp.'s Churchrock mill, July 16, 1979, started out as just another work day.
Every other Friday he and members of the engineering department came in at 6 a.m., before the day shift workers, to take measurements of all the production done within the last two weeks. “Based on those measurements, that's how the miners got paid,” he said.
As he was driving to work that Friday morning, “It was kind of dark and I didn't see anything. I was still sleepy and I didn't look around; I just drove in, put my underground equipment on – slickers, boots and everything,” he said. When day shift workers starting arriving around 8 a.m., “that's when I started hearing, 'Did you see that break in the dam?'”
Not too long before the break occurred, King said he and other workers had been called out to the tailings dam to take some measurements. “I remember those cracks running across the dikes, some of them were so wide you could put your whole hand in there.” The cracks went “way down,” he said.
When he got off work at 2:30 p.m., July 16, as he was leaving, “I looked that way and I saw a huge gaping hole through the dam. I thought, 'Wow, that's where the cracks were.'
“By the time I got down by the Puerco Wash bridge there was just a small stream going through. It was just like after a huge flood where all the mud was still on the sides.”
This Thursday, King and others will recount their memories of the July 16 event during the “30th Anniversary Commemoration of the Church Rock Uranium Tailings Spill,” sponsored by the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, or MASE, a coalition of community groups affected by uranium mining.
The commemoration is designed to remember and honor the Diné communities that were affected by the largest release of radioactive waste in U.S. history. Nadine Padilla of MASE said that during the press conference Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. is expected to reaffirm the Navajo Nation's ban on uranium mining and processing, as set forth in the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005.
Thursday's ceremony will kick off at 7 a.m., at the home of Teddy Nez, 29E Red Water Pond Road, next to the Northeast Churchrock Mine. A prayer walk to the site of the spill across from the United Nuclear Corp. mill site begins at 8 a.m., along Route 566, with participants arriving around 11 a.m. at the King Family Ranch on Old Churchrock Mine Road at SR 566.
A press conference will be held at the King Ranch before walkers continue on to Churchrock Chapter House for a recognition luncheon at 12:15 p.m. Uranium films and a panel discussion will be held 5-9 p.m., at Calvin Hall Auditorium on the University of New Mexico-Gallup Campus.
“We felt it was really important to remember the communities and the families that were affected by the Churchrock uranium spill,” Padilla said. “We just wanted to honor those people and encourage people to remember the uranium legacy that still exists in this area, and all of the abandoned mines and all of the health problems that were caused from past mining.”
When the earthen tailings dam at the UNC mill failed, 1,100 tons of radioactive mill waste and an estimated 95 million gallons of mine process effluent flowed down Pipeline Arroyo and into the north fork of the Puerco River – more radiation than was released in the Three Mile Island reactor accident four months earlier.
The spill ranks second only to the 1986 Chernobyl reactor meltdown in the amount of radiation released. According to a September 2007 article by Doug Brugge, Jamie L. deLemos, and Cat Bui that appeared in the American Journal of Public Health, the massive amount of radioactive water “backed up sewers, affected two nearby aquifers, left pools along the river, and transported contaminants” to a point near Navajo, Ariz.
The spill, combined with more than 20 years of discharges of untreated or poorly treated uranium mine water, has contributed to long-term contamination of the Puerco River in New Mexico and Arizona. A formal cleanup plan for the Northeast Churchrock Mine was issued in June, 27 years after the mine closed.
Larry Livingston, whose family lives in the Superman Canyon area, said last week that his father worked at the mine. “He's been having problems lately. He has a lot of sores on his legs. My mom died of cancer about three months ago,” he said, adding that the cancer was radiation-related.
“I was just talking to my grandma from my dad's side about the spill that happened in the '70s. Back then we were herding sheep around that arroyo. We saw water that was really bad down on the northeast of our place, and we figured it was just the water that ran through from there,” he said.
“But then we heard that there was Navajo police and the sheriff there. We didn't know what was going on,” he said. “After that we lost like half a dozen cattle, half a dozen horses, sheep” that drank from the arroyo. He said they noticed the cattle and sheep “were having a lot of saliva coming out of their mouths and they were having a hard time breathing.”
When the animals were butchered, he said, the meat “was kind of like yellowish. It was all over the meat inside, the intestines.”
During 2007 hearings before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, King testified that the contaminated fluids that escaped from the UNC uranium mill tailings pond ran right through their property, in the Puerco River, where they watered their livestock.
“I remember the foul odor and yellowish color of the fluids. I remember that an elderly woman was burned on her feet from the acid in the fluid when she waded into the stream while herding her sheep.
“Many years later, when water lines were being installed in the bed of the Puerco, I noticed the same odor and color in a layer about 8 feet below the stream bed. To this day, I don't believe that contamination from the spill has gone away,” he said.
Indian Telecommunications Initiative Workshop, July 27-29
The Federal Communications Commission will have its eighth regional workshop and roundtable July 27-29 in Rapid City and Pine Ridge, S.D.
The event, sponsored by several groups including the National Tribal Telecommunications Association, NAPT, the National Congress of American Indians and Native Public Media, is part of the FCC's Indian Telecommunications Initiatives program and national outreach for developing a broadband plan.
The meeting will focus on ways to expand the deployment of new broadband technologies in Indian Country.
To register for the roundtable, contact Kamala Hart of the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau at 202-418-1765 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the FCC's ITI program, contact Shana Barehand, senior attorney and liaison to tribal governments, at 202-418-0385 or email@example.com.
Updates and more information about ITI South Dakota will also be made available on the FCC's Tribal Initiatives website at www.fcc.gov/indians
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