Navajos demand government action to clean up uranium sites

CHURCH ROCK, NM — Teracita Keyanna grew up in the community of Red Water Pond Road, but she never gave much thought to where her community was near a uranium-contaminated area.

She spent her days herding her grandmother’s sheep, unknowingly letting them graze in the most contaminated parts of the community because there were no fences or signs to warn her of the dangers.

While tending to the sheep, she would take a sip of water she found in nearby puddles, which was nothing out of the ordinary for a Navajo child growing up in the Navajo Nation.

She is now well aware of the dangerousness of these seemingly innocent acts and, as an adult, she strives to educate children about their uranium-contaminated community, lessons she says children should not not have to learn.

Among his teaching supplies are crossword puzzles using words like “uranium”, “yellowcake” and “radiation”. She has coloring books, a scrambled word activity sheet where kids form words like ‘open pit’, ‘pile of debris’ and ‘warning signs’.

It also distributes a comic book entitled “Gamma Goat: The Danger of Uranium”. Illustrations show a goat teaching sheep about the origin of uranium mining, how sheep should stay away from mines, and what to know. Morbid learning tools, she knows, but Keyanna says it’s vital to their safety and knowledge.

Children are given a puzzle to learn about uranium safety in their community.

“It pisses me off,” Keyanna said. “It was never done when I was a kid. My generation probably got it right with the miners because I used to herd the sheep with those fences down and nobody would say anything. It pisses me off to having to monitor my health and see if anything develops.

Keyanna is part of the local organization Red Water Pond Road Community Association, which was founded in 2006 by Navajo residents who live near the Northeast Church Rock mines, the Tronox Quivira mines and the United Nuclear Corp plant site. The community is just over 20 miles northeast of Gallup, New Mexico.

The organization held its 43rd commemoration of the legacy of the uranium tailings spills last week. On July 16, 1979, an earth dam owned by United Nuclear Corp. ruptured and released 1,100 tons of radioactive uranium tailings and 94 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Puerco River, contaminating the river for at least 80 miles and affecting approximately 11 Navajo Nation communities.

A year later, the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit seeking $12.5 million from United Nuclear Corp. on behalf of 125 Navajo families from Arizona and New Mexico for damages they claim resulted from the dumping of radioactive water into the Puerco River in July 1979.

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People were not warned of the risks

Teracita Keyanna, community member and member of the Red Water Pond Road Community Association, shows off the learning resources she uses to teach children about uranium in their communities.

Residents living along the Puerco River at the time said they were never warned of the dangers of radioactive waste contaminating the water they used for their livestock and crops. Environmental agencies in Arizona and New Mexico never said whether the water was safe.

In August 1980, it was reported that the Arizona Department of Health Services had warned families living along the Puerco in Navajo and Apache counties in Arizona to avoid the water and keep their livestock out of the river.

Radioactivity levels in the river exceed Arizona’s maximum limit, the department said. The department began testing water from the Puerco River after the spill.

At the time, Cubia Clayton of New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Division said the hazard “is not at a level that causes us concern at this point.”

“There is some, but not much, evidence that background levels of uranium mine releases over a long period of time could cause higher levels of radiation in the tissues of livestock,” he told the IAAF. era.

Locals say the community has long faced this kind of denial about how dangerous the Puerco River is to Navajo families and their livestock. It wasn’t until 2015 that Navajo researcher Tommy Rock, who was testing unregulated wells along the Puerco River, found uranium levels at 43 parts per billion, well above the uranium limit. of 30 parts per billion, in water.

“Contaminated runoff from uranium mining has degraded the Puerco River and for decades has negatively impacted the people who depend on it,” Rock said in 2019 during testimony before a subcommittee of US House natural resources.

Not only was the spill harmful, he said, but other factors such as routine plant operations, unplanned events and poor sanitation from mining activities disproportionately affected tribal communities.

Community members, tribal government officials, researchers and scientists attended the Commemoration of the Legacy of the Uranium Tailings Spills, which was a day of sharing stories and listening to updates. day.

Teresa Montoya, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, has family in the Puerco Valley in Sanders. She said it was through Rock’s research that this contamination was eventually discovered. After that, the community formed the Puerco Valley Homeowners Association to bring the tribe and other entities together to address the issue.

“No action has taken place because the federal or tribal government is going to take it upon themselves to do so,” Montoya said. “I argue it’s a community effort, and usually it’s because of some kind of grief or trauma. By supporting Diné scientists and researchers like Tommy, who informed this community, they took this data and they put pressure on the Navajo Nation.

With more than 520 abandoned uranium mines across the Navajo Nation awaiting cleanup, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reached enforcement agreements and settlements worth more than $1.7 billion. dollars to reduce the Navajo people’s highest risk of radiation exposure from abandoned uranium mines. As a result, funds are available to begin the process of assessing and cleaning up 230 of the 523 abandoned uranium mines.

A 10-year plan for how these funds will be used has been put in place by the EPA Navajo.

“It’s going to take a long time to clean up the uranium mines,” said Chris Shuey, co-investigator for the DiNEH project and the Navajo Birth Cohort Study at the Southwest Research and Information Center. “There is only money for 40% of that. The federal government has no plan to commit the kind of resources it will take to fix this problem, get people to work, and fix the ground to care for people.

More than 500 uranium mines have been abandoned in the Navajo Nation.  leaving behind a legacy of polluted water, soils and health impacts.

“We are tired of the doable”

The Red Water Pond Road Community organization continues to fight for environmental justice and awareness. For the past two years, the community and the Navajo Nation have worked to prevent the transfer and storage of uranium-contaminated soil from the Northeast Church Rock mine site to a proposed site just one mile away.

In April, Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners visited the community of Red Water Pond Road and heard from residents who shared first-hand accounts of the traumatic experiences to health and livelihoods caused by mines.

Transferring waste just one mile from the Navajo Nation has been a contentious issue for the community and the Navajo Nation. In 2021, President Jonathan Nez wrote a letter to the NRC opposing a dump so close to the Navajo Nation.

Landfill costs to transfer waste to the road were about $44 million, according to attendees at a local radio forum that year. That’s millions of dollars less than the $293 million it would cost to transport it to the nearest off-reserve facility, which is why this nearby transfer was proposed.

“It was always what they wanted and not the community,” Keyanna said. “The community has always wanted offsite removal. And the answer has always been “it’s on your property”. We’ve always been told it’s the doable solution and we’re sick of the doable. We don’t have a solution, but it’s not up to us to find a solution. Why should the community determine where it is going? »

Leaving the community is not the solution or an option for the 53 families who choose to stay in their homes. Cultural ties to the land are strong, locals say, even though the EPA has tried to erase it by saying the mines were there first and people followed.

“There was one thing going on that the EPA kept repeating, that somehow the mines were here first and people were following them,” Shuey said. “People here could trace their lineage a hundred years from there.”

But supporters apparently succeeded, because the NRC sent a memo to its staff to delay issuing a final environmental impact statement and safety assessment report, which are both required to allow EPA to transfer and store uranium-contaminated soils from the Northeast Church Rock mine site to the proposed site one mile away.

“The delay allows the Navajo Nation to advocate for an alternative to hauling waste across the road,” said Valinda C. Shirley, executive director of the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States. Navajo Nation. “We are preparing to meet with our federal partners, such as the US EPA and US DOE, to discuss alternate sites to dispose of Northeast Church Rock Mine waste.”

As the federal government continues to delay the cleanup of these uranium mines, locals fear that officials will wait and hope that the Navajo Nation and its people will forget the 40 years of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation and the largest radioactive spill. Keyanna and the community of Red Water Pond Road will continue their annual commemoration of the spill to remind everyone that they have not forgotten and neither should the federal government.

“In other places it wouldn’t be a problem,” Keyanna said. “Community members who decided they weren’t going, in their minds, they lived their lives. They think if they are going to die here it will be for a reason. And our elders are largely explained by the fact that if they leave, they will go back to work at the mine. We still continue to fight.

Arlyssa D. Becenti covers Native Affairs for the Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ABecenti.

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