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  • It was peaceful.

  • It was our home.

  • And we used to have farming down here and up that way.

  • And I used to play in that perennial stream.

  • The sheep, the cows and the horses they all drank from there.

  • Nobody told us not to.

  • The Navajo tribe, I wonder if they had any idea what was going to happen here.

  • For over forty years, this Navajo community in Church Rock, New Mexico

  • has been living with a toxic legacy.

  • The mining industry poisoned their water, soil, and air...

  • abandoned hundreds of uranium mines...

  • and turned its back on the biggest radioactive spill in US history.

  • Let's go back here.

  • Of course you see the pile.

  • Right there that big one that looks like a mesa or a hill.

  • This isn't a natural hill.

  • It's a pile of uranium mining waste,

  • a remnant of the industry that started here during World War II.

  • "On the New Mexico Desert, allied scientists unleashed its stupendous power."

  • In the early 1940s, the US developed top-secret plans to build an atomic bomb.

  • "The greatest secret of the war..."

  • And for that, they needed a steady, domestic source of a radioactive substance called uranium.

  • From World War II through the Cold War, the US incentivized uranium mining to build up domestic nuclear power.

  • By the 1950s, there was a uranium boom in the Southwest.

  • Navajo Nation the largest Native American territory in the US sits right in the middle.

  • And it was quickly swept into the uranium mining industry.

  • "Vast deposits of uranium have been discovered in the Navajo hills..."

  • The US government hired private mining companies

  • that often leased land without compensating Navajo Nation fairly.

  • But the tribal government let them in

  • because it offered the prospect of economic growth and jobs for its residents.

  • By the 1950s, there were 750 mines in the area employing thousands of people from Navajo Nation.

  • This area, along Red Water Pond Road, eventually became one of those hotspots

  • with two big mining operations setting up shop here.

  • The only job that was really available in our area was the mines.

  • And I got a job there in October of 1975 as a surface laborer.

  • As a single parent I had to find a job.

  • And they gave me a job as a probe technician.

  • Mining jobs for Native Americans were often on the frontlines...

  • building the mines, blasting, digging, and transporting the yellow uranium ore.

  • But what they didn't know at the time was that decades earlier

  • studies had already linked uranium mining to lung cancer.

  • "Many radon daughters are retained in the lungs..."

  • And the importance of protecting mine workers from radioactivity was well documented.

  • "It is necessary to have fans capable of providing plenty of fresh air to all..."

  • Yet many Navajo workers say they had little protective gear,

  • no ventilation in the mines,

  • and no warning of how hazardous uranium could be to their health.

  • I was breathing in dust, mine dust, all that uranium dust.

  • That smell from the explosives --

  • you could smell it coming down and give you a headache.

  • By the 1960s, cases of lung cancer started appearing in Navajo Nation,

  • where the disease had been nearly nonexistent.

  • And it wasn't just the mine workers.

  • Residents near Red Water Pond Road, sandwiched between those two mines, eventually started to get sick, too.

  • We're right here. And so you can see Kerr-McGee area and then of course UNC.

  • And these are the local people that have homes in the area.

  • People, children especially, getting sick with asthma problems,

  • and people were having cancer.

  • We didn't know about the, the radiation.

  • That changed in the summer of 1979.

  • UNC stored its toxic uranium waste in a pond nearby.

  • The site was called a tailings pond,

  • which held several hundred million gallons of radioactive sludge, or tailings.

  • Early on July 16th the dam on the pond broke,

  • letting out over one thousand tons of uranium tailings and millions of gallons of wastewater into the Rio Puerco.

  • It was a creek bed locally known as the Perky,

  • that was often used as a source of drinking water for locals and livestock.

  • I started hearing people talking. Did you see that? Did you see the mill? Did you see the dam?

  • I looked in that direction and

  • sure enough, there was a huge break.

  • There was crowds of people out there, but never really knowing

  • you know, that 94 million gallons of contaminated waste had just gone down the Perky.

  • The Puerco was radioactive.

  • One government report showed radioactivity levels in the Puerco at over one thousand times what is allowed in drinking water.

  • But at the time of the spill, newspapers characterized

  • the area as "sparsely populated" and that the spill "presents no immediate health hazard."

  • Many Navajo residents, in a community of about 100,

  • said they weren't warned about using the river or about the spill...

  • until several days later.

  • For the mining company, there had been warning signs.

  • An Army Corps of Engineers report showed that cracking was identified by the company in 1978...

  • the year before the spill.

  • The UNC also knew the dam "did not incorporate all the necessary protective measures.

  • After the spill, the company, and federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency evaded responsibility,

  • and just one percent of the solid radioactive waste was cleaned up within three months of the spill.

  • This was a stark comparison to the US response to another nuclear accident,

  • which happened less than four months before the Church Rock spill.

  • It was the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania.

  • After the accident, President Carter visited the site.

  • Cleanup began quickly and those affected in the nearby, largely white community...

  • were compensated by the plant.

  • Back in Church Rock, where the spill released three times as much radiation as Three Mile Island,

  • the residents were barely compensated

  • and the largest radioactive spill in US history was overlooked.

  • Over here, you know, we're like, treated like a third world.

  • It's not cleaned up.

  • It's still here. It's been here 40 years.

  • They don't see us as human beings. We're like, we're disposable.

  • While there still hasn't been a comprehensive health study done in the area,

  • there is a clearer picture of the effects of uranium mining in Navajo Nation.

  • Various studies have linked mining areas in Navajo Nation to higher rates

  • of cancer, kidney and cardiovascular disease, and birth defects.

  • I got lymphoma in my immune system. And for me somehow it became double whammy.

  • I lived there and I worked there.

  • I am certain,

  • that we drank contaminated water all our lives from the very beginning.

  • The mine spill did not only happen on that one day, July 16th.

  • It began way back in the early 60s because they were releasing all this untreated mine water.

  • It flowed 24/7 and on into the Puerco.

  • In Navajo, they say Bessie Kay, meaning we literally walked in it, you know.

  • These companies coming in and taking the raw resources

  • for them it's like money, money, money. They're taking at the sacrifice of people.

  • People died, sacrificed their life.

  • In the 1980s, as demand for nuclear energy declined, the mines shut down.

  • Today, there are more than 500 abandoned sites,

  • many surrounded by massive piles of uranium waste.

  • For decades, residents like Edith have been fighting to get them removed.

  • She helped form an organization called the Red Water Pond Road Community.

  • This was our very first banner, we left

  • it up there and we just didn't take down.

  • And then of course Leetso Doda, means no uranium.

  • She helped with the community's own research.

  • Back in 2005, around that time this is what we came up with

  • when we decided to butcher a sheep.

  • We opened it up but the fat was like yellow.

  • She spoke at multiple government hearings.

  • "We want clean water and clean air for our precious children and grandchildren,

  • so that they will have the same opportunity to once again

  • play in the meadows and canyons of my childhood. Thank you."

  • Eventually, the EPA, and the mining company, now owned by General Electric,

  • committed to a cleanup plan. But there was a catch.

  • It could take at least seven more years to clear the radioactive waste at the mine.

  • As for the Puerco, they never presented a cleanup plan for the water.

  • In the meantime, the EPA wants the residents

  • of Red Water Pond Road to move to the nearby city of Gallup, which means they would have

  • to live outside of Navajo Nation and adjust to an entirely different way of life.

  • That's like the Trail of Tears. It's like the long walk.

  • Indian people are being removed and Indian people are being uprooted.

  • And to me, that's genocide.

  • The residents of Red Water Pond Road have another solution:

  • a plan to create an off-grid, solar-powered community in a nearby mesa.

  • And this is the site where we were hoping that

  • we would move everybody, but it hasn't happened.

  • Navajo Tribal Utility Authority said it's gonna cost too much money to run a power line up there.

  • Without a better solution, dozens of people have already taken the offer to voluntarily relocate.

  • But for now, Edith and a handful of her neighbors

  • are staying put and continuing the long fight for their home.

  • They just came in,

  • tore up the place,

  • and left that contamination behind.

  • And they really don't want to do anything about it. They don't care. The government doesn't care.

  • But we have connections with the land.

  • And we have you know, stories of where we're from.

  • We still live here.

  • We still call this place home.

It was peaceful.

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B1 uranium navajo mining spill radioactive pond

The biggest radioactive spill in US history

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/10/12
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