On July 15th, thirty-one years ago, all was usual in the Church Rock area of the Navajo reservation. Life was “everyday normal” for Navajo families, but maybe not “everyday normal” for the average person living in the United States. You see, at this time, many Navajo families had no electricity and drove several miles to haul potable water, as no running water was available. This was life as normal for the area.
Also on July 15th, President Carter made a vocal commitment proposing plans to use more nuclear power and fossil fuels in energy development. You see, the Navajo Nation was the bread & butter for the uranium industry a mere thirty-one years ago. In fact, Navajo lands (Dine’ bikeyah) are estimated to hold over 70 millions pounds of uranium reserves, one of the largest reserves in the entire country.
Less than twelve hours later on July 16th, 1979, an accident occurred that forever-changed Dine’ bikeyah and has since haunted multitudes of families with its fatal effects. At approximately 5:00am on July 16th, 1979, the biggest expulsion of radioactive material in the United States occurred when a dam broke at the Church Rock Uranium Mill that was operated by United Nuclear Corporation. The spill is known as “the largest peacetime accidental release of radioactive contaminated materials in the history of the United States."
The spill released 93 million gallons of toxic and radioactive waste into the Rio Puerco and into the Rio Puerco watershed causing the water to turn yellow. The damage? The Navajo who were improperly provided notice, walked through the river and were burned on contact and suffered from boils. The Navajo livestock who drank from the rivers died after suffering from arthritis and red eyes. When butchered, the livestock intestines were yellow and stank of a foul smell. Just days after the “accident,” testing was performed 80 miles away. The test results showed 7,000 times the allowable standard of radioactivity for drinking water.
Thirty-one years later, the Navajo continue to suffer from the Church Rock uranium spill. As a result, the Navajo suffer from astronomical rates of birth defects, kidney disease and cancer. The spill propelled the Navajo Nation into a state of conflict due to its wealth and economic interest in the uranium industry. Despite its economic benefits, the Navajo Nation has forever banned uranium mining and development on Dine’ bikeyah and in constant awareness of uranium’s fatal dangers the Navajo Nation Coucil has proclaimed July 16th as Uranium Legacy Remembrance & Action Day.
The spill was an accident. You see, three measures failed when the dam broke. The “safety precautions” that existed did not pan out and resulted in the radioactive contamination of a precious community and culture. After having married into an Ojibwe family, I find myself working in Anishinaabe country and just miles from my home is the headwaters of the Mississippi. The headwaters begin as just a trickle of water that eventually develops into a giant river flowing down into the Gulf of Mexico. This Saturday, my wife and I will join others from the area for a ceremony at the headwaters to pray over the Mississippi and its destination.
The Church Rock uranium spill was an accident. The BP spill was an accident. The price of energy has become too high. When will we learn our lesson? Fossil fuels & nuclear energy are not worth it. Just ask my family who live miles from Church Rock or ask the Atakapa-Ishak people who live in a coastal Louisiana village and are now suffering from the BP spill. It’s not worth it. The price is too high. I’ve been told and my family can relate with this, “I can live without electricity. I can live without gas. But, I can’t live without water.”