In 1979, a dam broke at a uranium mill near Church Rock, N.M., releasing more than 1,100 tons of mining waste and 100 million gallons of radioactive water. It was the second largest radioactive materials accident in U.S. history, resulting in contamination worse than the nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island that same year. But unlike Three Mile Island, chances are you’ve never heard of it.
Recently, my HIP colleague Sara Satinsky and I visited the Red Water Pond community, a Navajo community near the site of the spill. We joined a caravan of 14 cars, led by Jordon Johnson of the McKinley Community Place Matters team, to the home of Bertha Nez. We ate dinner under a home made shaded area, sitting on benches and folding chairs, while Bertha, Tony Hood, and Philmer Bluehouse told us their stories.
They showed us pictures of hillsides that used to have trees until one of many clean up processes began to remove contaminated soil and uplifted their roots. Their family members are buried under the trees.
They talked about people being sick from cancer and respiratory diseases. They told us about the goat that was born with no hair and died within 30 minutes of being born, about the sheep they slaughter for food being yellow inside.
They told us about working in the mine, about a manager who kept yellowcake (concentrated uranium powder) on his desk, about not understanding the risks they were taking. They pointed to a Hogan (a traditional Navajo house) no one could live in because the hearth had been built with contaminated soil.
Tony explained to us that a Hogan is built to honor the four directions. Philmer sang us a song and prayer in Navajo and showed us the area where they will build a new Hogan to offer healing to the people. He showed us how to enter such a place – with the leaders entering first, then the women, then the men, all circling the perimeter in a clockwise direction.
When they told us their stories, they all cried. And as we listened to them, so did we. The people living in this community don’t want to leave the area – the place blessed by their elders, the place where they were born, where their loved ones are buried. They asked us for nothing – no request to sign a petition, make a donation, or organize a protest. They only wanted us to hear them, to be witnesses to their struggles.
So we did. We listened. We witnessed. And we are sharing their story with others.
Human Impact Partners is providing training and technical assistance to the McKinley Community Place Matters Team via the New Mexico Health Equity Partnership to conduct a Health Impact Assessment on a proposed moratorium of uranium mining for the county.