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The Collapse of Church Rock Dam: An American Tragedy and its Worst Nuclear Accident

Updated on November 22, 2017
Mark Caruthers profile image

BA University of Arkansas Fayetteville Geography & History

1979 Church Rock Disaster

Thirty-four years to the day and hour after the first atomic bomb test in 1945, a sound similar to a clap of thunder echoed through the eastern part of the Navajo Nation, near Church Rock, New Mexico. On the morning of July 16, 1979, neighbors and mill workers awoke to the collapse of the huge earthen dam at the United Nuclear Corporation's Church Rock uranium mill. The accident released 1,000 tons of radioactive mill tailings, radium laced sandy debris left over from the extraction and concentration of uranium, and 93 million gallons of acidic and radioactive wastewater into a deeply cut creek that flowed into the Rio Puerco River. The waste flowed downstream at least 80 miles through the arid, rocky landscape reaching as far as Chambers, Arizona. Most people are unaware that the third-largest nuclear disaster in world history occurred in New Mexico. Less than four months after the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown in April of 1979, three times as much radiation was released when the dam was breached at Church Rock dumping almost 100 million gallons of radioactive sludge into an arroyo that emptied in to the Puerco River. Unlike the Three Mile Island accident earlier that year the Church Rock accident didn't make the national or international news. For Church Rock residents there was no state of emergency, no evacuation, and limited alternative water supplies. The spill was a result of poor oversight, poor siting, and poor construction setting an example of the types of problems that occur at uranium mines and mills. Over three decades after the Church Rock Disaster, the mining companies have yet to clean up their mess. Church Rock is one of the more serious uranium mining accidents on American lands. However, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission at least ten additional incidents occurred in the region between 1959 and 1977. In 1984, a flash flood caused four tons of high-grade uranium ore to wash into the Colorado River and Kanab Creek. In Moab, Utah, the 130-acre mine tailing site left by Atlas Mining leaks 57,000 gallons of radioactive contamination into the Colorado River daily. And Shiprock, New Mexico, is the site of a 72 acre, 2.7 million ton pile of mine tailings.

Church Rock Dam Breach

The Breach at the Church Rock Dam over 93 million gallons of radioactive wastewater was released soil samples at the site of the release measured radioactive levels 7,000 times the normal level.
The Breach at the Church Rock Dam over 93 million gallons of radioactive wastewater was released soil samples at the site of the release measured radioactive levels 7,000 times the normal level. | Source
Shiprock, New Mexico, is the site of a 72 acre, 2.7 million ton pile of mine tailings.
Shiprock, New Mexico, is the site of a 72 acre, 2.7 million ton pile of mine tailings. | Source

The Day of the Disaster

Teddy Nez remembers that day in 1979 when the dam broke, he lived less than a mile from the Northeast Church Rock Mine. At about 6 a.m. on Friday morning, the dam broke and the waste rushed out of a previously contained pond. "I just heard a big roar," Nez said. " It sounded like heavy rains running through the nearby ditches," according to Nez. But July 16, 1979 was in the middle of summer with no clouds in sight. The area flooded with millions of gallons of wastewater, but residents near the spill didn't know the extent of the damage the contaminated water would cause. " At the time it was kind of like a rainstorm. We didn't know the content of the water," said Nez. People started complaining about their feet getting hot, some residents went to the hospital but were release with a diagnosis of simple hear stroke. Entire herds of cattle and sheep died in wake of the disaster. Over three decades later Church Rock residents are still living in the waste. Hundreds of mines in the area were abandoned and never reclaimed. The ground water in the area was contaminated and people today are still seeing the mine's effect on their health, which include high rates of cancers and rare forms of cancers.

Navajo Uranium Miners Operating a Mucking Machine at the Rico Mine 1953.

Source

A History Of Uranium Mining In The United States

The response the Church Rock accident was not an anomaly. Native American miners had been working in underground uranium and vanadium mines since 1940s helping produce the uranium needed for the Manhattan Project. The Vanadium Corporation of America began secret uranium mining for the atomic-bomb project on Navajo lands in 1943. At the time neither the miners nor the tribal leadership were told what they were mining. The top-secret status of the atom-bomb project and later cold-war security fears created a lasting imprint on the nuclear culture that led to the withholding of information. Health studies on the miners and even the locations of the mines were kept secret. Native American miners worked in underground uranium and vanadium mines without the health precautions standard in other mines, such as pumping fresh air for ventilation to dilute radon gas concentrations. Radon, a decay product of uranium, can cause lung cancer if inhaled. When the mining began, the Navajo men hired worked without protective gear, sometimes without even gloves. Government documents show that a least some hazards were recognized and the toxicity of uranium. But during the World War II the military ignored health concerns in the rush to obtain uranium. The nearby Nevada Test Site, a nuclear-weapons testing facility, produced its own hazards, which the prevailing winds blew across the Navajo lands. The uranium mined from these lands fueled the nuclear reactors at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, which made plutonium for nuclear weapons, and later fueled civilian nuclear-power plants. The Navajo Nation is littered with abandoned radon-emitting uranium mine sites, at least 1,032 of them. In addition, until 1980 untreated water was discharged from the mining and milling companies in to the Rio Puerco at a rate of 2.8 billion gallons per year. Mine waste was dumped in piles where Navajo children played until the 1990s and most of it is still there today. During the 1980s and 1990s, the federal government and the commercial waste industry targeted Native lands as "the new dumping grounds" for toxic wastes, as nuclear landfills, and for the commercial toxic waste and garbage incineration because of the relative inability of Native Americans to defend themselves in federal courts. The Navajo reservation contains some of the globe's richest uranium deposits. From 1944 to 1986 nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore were mined to build America's Cold War arsenal and supplied fuel for reactors to generate electricity for American cities. Today, more than 1,000 abandoned mines occupy the earth underneath the 27,000 square-mile reservation.

The Rio Puerco River During A Flood in 2010

The Rio Puerco River would carry the radioactive wastewater downstream to thousands of victims.
The Rio Puerco River would carry the radioactive wastewater downstream to thousands of victims. | Source
The massive buttes and rock spires in the Navajo desert home to the scared landmarks of the Navajo people, and backgrounds for famous Westerns directed by John Ford during the golden years of western films.
The massive buttes and rock spires in the Navajo desert home to the scared landmarks of the Navajo people, and backgrounds for famous Westerns directed by John Ford during the golden years of western films. | Source
The Navajo reservation contains some of the globe's richest uranium deposits. From 1944 to 1986 nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore were mined to build America's Cold War arsenal.
The Navajo reservation contains some of the globe's richest uranium deposits. From 1944 to 1986 nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore were mined to build America's Cold War arsenal. | Source
Monument Valley today more than 1000 abandoned mines occupy the earth underneath the 27,000 square-mile reservation.
Monument Valley today more than 1000 abandoned mines occupy the earth underneath the 27,000 square-mile reservation. | Source
Monument Valley sacred ground for the Navajo people.
Monument Valley sacred ground for the Navajo people. | Source

The Trinity Test

On Monday morning July 16, 1945, the world was changed forever when the first atomic bomb was tested in an isolated area of the New Mexico desert. Conducted in the final months of World War II by the top-secret Manhattan Engineer District, this test was code named Trinity. The Trinity test took place on the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, about 230 miles south of the Manhattan Project's headquarters at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Today this 3,200 square mile range, partly located in the desolated Jornada del Muerto Valley, is named the White Sands Missile Range and is actively used for non-nuclear weapons testing. The device as the bomb was called was exploded successfully and the Atomic Age was born. The nuclear blast created a flash of light brighter than a dozen suns. The light was seen over the entire state of New Mexico and in parts of Arizona, Texas, and Mexico. The bombs mushroom cloud rose to over 38,000 feet within minutes, and the heat from the explosion was 10,000 times hotter than the surface of the sun. At ten miles away, the heat from the blast was described as like standing directly in front of a roaring fireplace. Every living thing within a mile of the tower holding the bomb was obliterated. The power of the bomb was estimated to be equal to 20,000 tons of TNT, or the equivalent to the bomb load of 2,000 B-29 Superfortresses.

The Trinity Fireball 0.016 Second After The Explosion July 16, 1945

An atomic fireball
An atomic fireball | Source

Aerial Photograph Of The Trinity Site. The Remote Jornada del Muerto Valley- Which Translates To: The Journey Of Death

Source

The End Of The Atomic Age

Uranium mining in New Mexico kicked off near the beginning of the atomic age when, in the 1950s, a Navajo man discovered uranium while herding his sheep. This is what essentially launched the uranium mining boom in the West. At first, the federal government was the sole purchaser of uranium for atomic weapons and experimental nuclear power. During that time, there was a tremendous number of uranium mines in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest, it was the heyday of uranium mining in New Mexico. Everybody thought they were going to get rich, it evolved into something not unlike the gold rush in California. By the 1906s, the private sector became involved, so caught up in profit making they chose to neglect taking proper safety measures for the workers it was a recipe for disaster. Proper OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) safety practices were not used on a daily basis, miners were not given respirators to use underground. Some miners even drank the water dripping in the tunnels. In the mid-1980s the uranium market crashed, and most of the mines and mills in New Mexico were closed. The EPA (Environment and Protection Agency) logs 10,400 uranium mine features across the west. Despite the obvious health risks associated with exposure to radiation that has been known for decades, very few studies exist that link Navajo illnesses to uranium mines and mills. As with anything nuclear, good information is difficult to obtain, it is possibly by design, because if the data was available no one would tolerate uranium mining anywhere. Once the full impacts of uranium mining and milling become clear, it is going to show there is tremendous devastation.

Sources

Pasternak, Judy. Yellow Dirt: An American Story Of A Poisoned Land And A People Betrayed. Free Press. New York London Toronto Sydney. A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York NY 10020. USA 2010.

Ross, Jeffrey Ian. American Indians at Risk. Greenwood Santa Barbara, California * Denver, Colorado * Oxford , England ABC-CLIO, LLC. 130 Cremona Drive, P.O. Box 1911 Santa Barbara, California 93116 . USA 2014.

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    • profile image

      Garrett Newton 

      20 months ago

      Mark just read The church rock disaster sent to my face book page ! Excellent Job!

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Important article. Thanks for sharing. Learned something new. Voted up.

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