MAC: Mines and Communities

Navajos: recalling disaster, forging a green future

Published by MAC on 2009-07-27

The Church Rock tailings disaster ("spill " is an unforgivable euphemism) of 16 July 1979 became emblematic of the appalling US mismanagement of uranium wastes, prevalent at that time.  It occurred despite passage of a fairly stringent federal US Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act, eighteen months earlier, in January 1978.

Although a uranium tailings dam failure of this magnitude has not been recorded since, that's doubtless due as much to the collapse in uranium demand (until its partial revival over the last two years) as to any dramatic improvement in mining oversight.

Certainly the Dine (Navajo) - the major victims of the Church Rock catastrophe - are determined never again to allow another uranium mine to operate in their territory.

For earlier story on MAC, see:

Legendary gorgon rears another ugly head

The company responsible for the Church Rock "meltdown" was United Nuclear Corp. By 1978 UNC had become the most important uranium provider for General Atomics (formerly General Atomic) which has a sordid sixty year history pipping the bad reputation of most other nuclear utilities to the post.

General Atomics was the first company to build so-called "civil" nuclear reactors anywhere in the world; for example selling Indonesia its earliest such plant which became operational in 1964.

It was also the key US protagonist in the global uranium cartel, set up by Rio Tinto in the early seventies. The cartel (dubbed a "club") succeeded in quintupling uranium market prices between 1972 and 1975, thus enabling the UK company to secure a massive British uranium supply contract for its Rossing mine in Namibia, which came on stream in 1976.

As a result of its participation in the cartel, General Atomic eventually to settle multi-million dollar law suits with energy utilities, while itself suing uranium companies that hadn't met their supply contracts.

[For a history of General Atomic, see "The Gulliver File: Mines, people and land, a global battleground", Minewatch and International Books, 1992, pps 389-390.]

Navajos turn to green energy

The Navajo (strictly speaking, Dine) Nation is also now leading the way among Native American communities by providing opportunities for its members in promoting energy efficiency as well as other alternative livelihoods.

No doubt what happened at Church Rock three decades ago is deeply engraved in the tribe's collective memory - even though many of them weren't even alive at the time.

[Comment by Nostromo Research, 25 July 2009]

Navajos mark 30th anniversary of uranium spill

Associated Press

16 July 2009

CHURCH ROCK, N.M. - Marking the 30th anniversary of a massive uranium tailings spill, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. on Thursday reaffirmed the tribe's ban on future uranium mining.

Shirley spoke about 20 minutes in both Navajo and English, addressing about 100 protesters who trekked seven miles along a highway in northwestern New Mexico.

On July 16, 1979, 94 million gallons of acidic water poured into the north fork of the Rio Puerco after an earthen uranium tailings dam failed. Within days, contaminated tailings liquid was found 50 miles downstream in Arizona.

Shirley called it "the largest peacetime release of radioactive contaminated materials in United States history."

Shirley says it will never be forgotten by Navajo and non-Navajo residents who are still struggling from effects of the disaster.

New attention to Church Rock uranium spill comes 30 years later

By Tracy Dingmann

New Mexico Independent

16 July 2009

Thirty years ago today, an earthen tailings dam near the United Nuclear Corp. Church Rock Uranium mine collapsed, spilling ninety million gallons of liquid radioactive waste and eleven hundred tons of solid mill wastes into the Rio Puerco.

The spill contaminated water, land and air at least 50 miles downstream on Navajo Nation land in New Mexico and Arizona.

It is believed that more radiation was released in the spill than in the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, making the Church Rock spill the largest release of radioactive waste ever in the U.S. - and second only to the Chernobyl meltdown globally. The privately-owned site of the Church Rock spill is a Superfund site - and it is still leaking radioactive waste throughout Indian lands to this day.

Yet few people today have ever heard of it.

A coalition of nearly 20 local Native American and environmental groups called MASE - Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment - is trying to make sure no one ever overlooks it again by holding a daylong remembrance of the spill today at several key sites. The ceremony will start with a five-mile-long prayer and health walk from the abandoned Church Rock mine to the spill site at the mill, and will end with discussions and a film festival later that evening.

But the groups also want to use today's remembrance as leverage to thwart plans in the works right now for a private company's plans to build an in-situ uranium mine near the site.

That's why, at noon, at the site of the spill, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley will be on hand to reaffirm the Navajo Nation's 2005 ban on uranium mining.

I think using the memory of the epic spill to reinforce opposition to new uranium mining is an incredibly symbolic gesture.

I only learned about the Church Rock spill a few days ago - and I wondered why I'd never heard of it.

With help from event organizer Nadine Padilla, I connected with Teddy Nez, a Navajo Vietnam veteran who lives near the Church Rock spill site.

"I am sandwiched between two abandoned uranium mines - to the south, about 500 feet away, is the UNC mine. And then on the north is the Kerr-McGee mine," Nez told me.

Seven generations of his family have lived on that spot, and the land - though contaminated - remains important to them for spiritual and familial reasons, Nez said.

Four generations of the family currently live there - and each has their own manifestation of symptoms the family believes is related to the uranium contamination, he said. The ailments include skin rashes and respiratory problems.

"We do have health problems, both physically and mentally - me, my family, my neighbors," Nez added.

Nez said he has seen doctors but finds that if the symptoms don't fit into one of two "buckets," the problems go untreated and uncured.

"If the Western medicine doctors can't put us in the cancer bucket or the diabetes bucket, than they can't diagnose us," said Nez. "And then the Western doctors say ‘You guys don't have any documented illnesses.'"

I also spoke with Paul Robinson, research director of the New Mexico-based Southwest Research and Information Center, about why the Church Rock spill hasn't gotten more attention. The nonprofit center, which was founded in 1971 to provide information to the public on the effects of energy development and resource exploitation on the people and their cultures, lands, water and air, has spoken out about the spill since it happened and maintains a huge archive of information at its Web site.

Possible reasons, Robinson said, include the fact that, unlike the Three Mile Island incident, the spill happened in a very rural area that was not served by major media.

Uranium mines were also not a "backyard issue," Robinson said, meaning that, unlike with nuclear plants, few people had ever heard of uranium mines or were worried that they'd become an issue in their cities.

And finally, the spill happened in Native American country, among a community of people who, back then, were not predisposed to speaking out, Robinson said.

Today's event - and the years of environmental activism that have preceded it - are welcome proof that that is beginning to change.

Billionaire U.S. Arms Dealer Buys Uranium Mine in Australia

17 July 2009

Not satisfied with just one uranium mine in his corporate empire, billionaire and arms merchant James Neal Blue has now purchased an adjoining mine in Australia used to supply radioactive material for civilian nuclear reactors in the United States. The addition of the Four Mile mine, which is next door to the Beverly mine, to Blue's General Atomics holdings has shown a little light on the reclusive arms supplier, whose dealings in Washington have spanned three decades and supplied many an American conflict.

Back in the 1980s, Blue was an "enthusiastic supporter" of the U.S.-backed effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, where Blue was once a part owner of a cocoa and banana plantation, along with the family of former dictator Anastasio Somoza. Blue's company helped build the Predator unmanned aircraft that is now widely popular with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. General Atomics reportedly has $700 million in defense contracts with the Pentagon.

Blue's company also has been generous towards members of Congress.

Between 2000 and 2005 it was the biggest corporate sponsor of travel for lawmakers, their families and staff, and Blue has contributed thousands of dollars to both Democratic and Republican campaigns.

-Noel Brinkerho

Navajo Nation Council Approves Green Jobs Legislation


21 July 2009

WINDOW ROCK, Arizona - The Navajo Nation Council today voted overwhelmingly in favor of creating the Navajo Green Economy Commission. This new legislation will establish the infrastructure needed to capture federal money already earmarked for green job development.

The Navajo Green Economy legislation will support small scale renewable energy projects; green manufacturing, such as wool mills; energy efficiency projects, such as weatherizing homes; local business ventures, such as establishing weavers' co-operatives and green construction firms; green job training programs; and reviving traditional agriculture.

Navajo Nation Speaker Lawrence Morgan and the Navajo Green Economy Coalition developed the legislation to support the creation of hundreds of green jobs on the Navajo Nation.

This morning, more than 50 supporters from across the reservation gathered in front of the Navajo Nation Education Building and marched a quarter of a mile in green "Green Jobs" shirts to the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in Window Rock.

The enactment of the Navajo Nation Green Economy Commission was introduced and tabled during the Navajo Nation Spring Council Session in April. After three months of additional work, the legislation was brought up today during the Summer Council and was approved on a vote of 62 to 1.

"This is the just the beginning for Indian Country. We hope our efforts pave the way for other tribal nations to bring local sustainable green jobs to their communities," said Wahleah Johns, co-director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition.

"The science, the technology, the brain power is all here. What is needed is the Navajo Nation's political will to jump start this process," says Enei Begaye, co-director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition.

In the spring of 2008, the Navajo Green Economy Coalition was formed to organize a green jobs initiative for the Navajo Nation. Led by Speaker Morgan, the coalition is made up of Navajo non-profit organizations and citizens who want to help transition and diversify the Navajo economy to one that is long-lasting, sustainable, and healthy.

In the months leading up to today's vote, Navajo Green Economy Coalition organizers visited and presented to dozens of Navajo Nation Chapters and met with numerous Navajo Nation Council delegates who support the Navajo green jobs legislation.

Kelvin Long, a member of the Navajo Green Economy Coalition, said, "Simply put, we are creating an opportunity for Navajo families and Chapters to establish local green businesses. We want our youth, veterans, fathers and mothers to work close to home on the Navajo Nation."

The Navajo Green Economy Coalition received 22 Navajo Navajo Chapter resolutions that support "the establishment of the Navajo Green Economy Commission and Fund" and supporting resolutions from two of the five Navajo Nation Agency Councils.

"A green economy is not a new concept to Navajo," said Tony Skrelunas, the former executive director of the Navajo Nation's Division of Economic Development and a member of the coalition. "There are many green business opportunities that fit perfectly with our culture."

"We must once again hearken to such processes to truly build our own economy that puts high value on our tradition - old and modern economic pursuits. In this way, we will build a vibrant economy for the future generations while honoring our great ancestors. Today's decision is a critical first step towards making this dream a reality," said Skrelunas.

"The passing of this legislation is monumental because it is a catalyst for economic development on the Navajo Nation with Navajo traditional values and community at its core," said David Johns of the Dine' Haatali Association, the Navajo Medicine Men Association.

The Navajo Green Economy Commission and Fund will support Navajo economic self-sufficiency by creating fair wages, promoting Navajo-owned green businesses, training workers in key green industries, and developing local renewable resources.

Although the legislation does not request money from the Navajo Nation for the Navajo Green Economy Fund, the purpose of creating the Fund is to attract grants from federal, state and private sources that can be used to support local green economy projects.

The Navajo Nation Green Economy legislation defines "green businesses" as businesses and industries that contribute to the economy with a minimum or no generation of greenhouse gases and/or with capabilities to counteract the negative effects of greenhouse gases.

"The neat thing about this legislation is that the definition of 'green' is tailored to fit our peoples identity," says Nikke Alex, a recent University of Arizona graduate. "We can combine our traditional practices with our university educations to create a Navajo economy that works for all of us - sustainable ranching and farming along side wind and solar farms - these will be the fruitful seeds for our future generations."

Copyright Environment News Service

Home | About Us | Companies | Countries | Minerals | Contact Us
© Mines and Communities 2013. Web site by Zippy Info