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GALLUP — Breathing heavily and leaning on the wheeled carrier for his oxygen tank, Leslie Begay of Coyote Canyon talked about the eight years he worked at the Old Churchrock Mine.
“This is what it did to me. Everything we did, nobody told us nothing about how affected we were going to get,” he said to those who attended Friday evening ‘s uranium forum at the Gallup Service Center.
The community meeting sponsored by Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund and New Mexico Social Justice & Equity Institute, drew around
60 citizens concerned about what they perceive as a lack of action by the federal government, the Navajo Nation and McKinley County to address health and contamination issues left over from the Cold War.
Begay, 62, a Vietnam veteran, worked at the mine from 1975 to 1983, making him one of the post-’71 uranium workers who fell through the cracks when it came to receiving benefits through the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. He is hopeful that Congress will enact a series of amendments which would extend compensation to workers not now covered.
“I’m just coming back from Albuquerque where I had my checkup. I got a bad lung disease from this kind of work that we have done,” he said. “One day I was working, I had a good job. It just snuck up on me, just like that, and I ended up in the hospital for three months. I couldn’t work no more. Now it’s getting to the point where I can’t breathe, and I’m on five liters (of oxygen) now. I’m waiting for a lung transplant. I wonder how many of my people are going to die off of this.”
Where are the voices?
Larry King, of Churchrock, was employed by United Nuclear Corp. from September 1975 to April 1983. He was working in the engineering department as an underground surveyor, taking measurements on the miners’ advancement because they got paid by the footage, he said, when the infamous Churchrock spill happened.
King recalled being taken to the tailings pond by his supervisor and others from his department a few weeks before the spill.
“We were checking the top of the dam. The supervisors were talking amongst themselves at a distance. I noticed there were huge cracks about the width of these floor tiles here several of them. You couldn’t see the bottom of the cracks. It was just pitch black down,” he said. “The superv isors just talked amongst themselves and went back to the office at the mine site, and lo and behold, where I noticed the cracks, that’s where the dam broke July 16, 1979,” King said.
“This spill released over 1,100 tons of radioactive mill waste and over 90 million gallons of contaminated liquid through the unnamed wash, which met up with the Puerco Wash,” he said.
But King believes the contamination started about a decade before that, in 1968, when United Nuclear sunk the shaft and began dewatering the mine. The liquid was pumped up to the surface and stored in two unlined ponds, before eventually being released through the Red Water Pond Road community and the Puerco. The contamination didn’t stop until 1995, he said, when the pumps were shut off in the shaft.
“I always wondered why city folks in the town of Gallup never really voiced their concerns about all this contamination that was flowing through the city for many, many years. It was just the Native communities on
the outside that have raised concerns,” he said.
Anna Rondon, executive director of New Mexico Social Justice & Equity Institute, said the spill and lack of action at Churchrock, compared to what happened at Three Mile Island March 28, 1979, when the nuclear power plant came close to a core meltdown, is an example of social and environmental racism.
“The governor of Pennsylvania immed iately provided resources to the families,” she said. “They had an 18-year study 32,000 people in three counties right after the nuclear meltdown. So why didn’t we get a comprehensive study?” “The consultant for United Nuclear knew that there was a vulnerable design in the dam, how the dam was built. The governor knew, state officials knew, United Nuclear knew, but they didn’t do anything to prevent it,” she said. “They weren’t fined, they weren’t told to upgrade the integrity of the dam.”
Rondon said there should be a comprehe nsive health study from ground zero in Churchrock where the dam broke, all the way along the Puerco Wash to Winslow, Arizona, where the tailings and contaminated liquids flowed. She also believes there should be another congressional field hearing such as the one that occurred before the 1990 passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
“Three Mile Island, as of 2011, had 2,500 lawsuits against the company and against the state. So don’t give up. If Three Mile Island (residents) after 30-some years of living with this contamination, if they’re organizing, we can too,” she said. “Environmental racism is what happened to our people.”
Lobbying falls flat
Tommy Reed is one of 500 men registered as a post-’71 worker at the Navajo Uranium Office in Shiprock, he said. He and others went before the Navajo Nation Council to seek help with lobbying lawmakers in Washington to pass the proposed RECA amendments.
“This past year we went before the tribal council and tried to make them understand that we need to get lobbying efforts put together, or for them to work alongside us,” Reed said. “They gave us the OK, 18-0. That’s how they voted in Window Rock. Then came the big task of letting it go be fore our president of the Navajo Nation. But that’s a totally different scenario. He went ahead and line-item vetoed.”
Reed said a group of former uranium workers planned to go to President Russell Begaye’s office Monday to advocate on their behalf.
Talia Boyd, Western New Mexico program director for Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund, said the release of a local health impact assessment in 2011, coupled with news of the proposed Roca Honda Mine near the base of Mount Taylor, spurred a lot of conversation in the community.
“Through these conversations, our comm unity people identified that a really great way of holding the industry accountable and having our decision-makers stand up, was pushing our local decision-makers on a county level,” Boyd said.
A resolution was introduced in November 2016 calling for a three-yearmoratorium on new uranium mining in McKinley County. It didn’t fly.
“Our commission got intimidated almost immediately. They stepped away and they decided not to go through with the ordinance and instead promised to start a Blue Ribbon Task Force that would start assessing the impacts that our communities have been talking about for years,” Boyd said.
“Since then, our commission has been backpedaling,” she said. “We’ve been asking them to keep their promise, and this forum is an extension of that conversation. We want to keep the momentum up. We want to keep the conversation going. We want to hold our county commission accountable.”