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Reflection on the 40th Commemoration of the Churchrock Uranium Tailings Spill

By August 2, 2019Uncategorized

A resident of Red Water Pond Road reminds event attendees that uranium mining impacts everything around it. Photo by Liliana Castillo/CVNM

The largest release of radioactive material in United States history occurred on July 16, 1979, on the Navajo Nation in Churchrock, NM. More than 1,100 tons of uranium mining tailings and 100 million gallons of radioactive material emptied through a collapsed dam and into the Puerco River, running directly through numerous communities.CVNM Education Fund joined the community of Red Water Pond Road for their annual event to commemorate the 1979 Churchrock Uranium Tailings Spill earlier this month. Part of the event is a walk to the nearby spill location. Below, CVNM Education Fund’s Western New Mexico contractor Percy Anderson shares his reflections on being part of the event. 

On Saturday, July 13th, the morning began with a traditional Navajo prayer and singing facilitated by a Medicine Woman.  At 9 a.m., booths were set up by various New Mexico organizations and the walkers returned.  

Tyanne, CVNM Education Fund’s Campaigns Director, and I worked as a team at the CVNM Education Fund booth. Much appreciation for Tyanne’s attendance at the gathering and assisting the group toward a successful two day event; both the commemoration gathering and film screening at El Morro Theatre. 

Larry King, a resident of Churchrock, was working at the mine site the day of the accident and recalls cracks in the waste pond’s earthen dam that were about a foot wide. Photo by Liliana Castillo/CVNM

At the event, I monitored who was present and identified individuals who have been part of the work of establishing the McKinley County Blue Ribbon Uranium Task Force. I  noticed that there were allies from various countries and regions, such as Japan, California, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Blue Gap/Tachee and various Navajo Nation Chapters both on the Arizona and New Mexico side including the following chapters:  Flagstaff, Shiprock, Standing Rock, Becenti Mariano Lake and Tse Siani.  

There were government officials present at the event as well. My vision is that we can work to include them as stakeholders for a common cause – hearing the personal stories from citizens of the county and working on recommendations, including policy, based on data collected. 

I had the opportunity to publicly speak and provide information about the Nuclear Nation film screening at El Morro Theatre. I also informed the public about the McKinley County Uranium Blue Ribbon Task Force Working Group efforts to go before the McKinley County Commission to provide a presentation on the importance of establishing a task force for the county.  

After the event, I was glad to have received various attendees email me. I have several new connections interested in collaborating on some projects that will address the uranium mining impacts to our environment and health. 

One of the great takeaways about planned gatherings in Indigenous communities is the high probability of reconnecting with family. I met my family for the first time on my father’s mother’s side from Blue Gap/Tachee Chapter community. My grandmother and older sister (shí’másání dóó shádí) informed me that her father was the brother to my grandmother’s (shínalí) mother. To me, connecting with one’s family tree is priceless.

The day ended with a 30-minute downpour of rain, and runoff to arroyos was tremendous that day. After the rain, the sun shone and dried the soil- they say that rain cleanses the mind and body. The ladies of Red Water Pond Community said to me, “It is good we had a Medicine Woman start our day off with a prayer and singing. We need to do this more often.”  

To learn more about the spill, please listen to this podcast created by Libbe Halevy from California. Her podcast is called “Nuclear Hotseat” and delves into background information on the spill in 1979 that than ran into the Rio Puerco heading west. 

Nuclear Nation Film Screening
El Morro Theatre, Gallup, NM
July 14, 2019

The day started with setting up for the event in the lobby area of the El Morro theatre.  Tammi Moe, the executive director of the Octavia Fellin Public Library, was preparing to work the film project to show the films. Mervyn Tilden, the facilitator, was preparing for his role. I opened the Nuclear Nation films screening with an introduction about what the McKinley County Uranium Blue Ribbon Task Force Working Group have been working on the last four years. I informed the public about our forthcoming presentation to the McKinley County Commission.  I encouraged their support and presence at the July 30 meeting. Mervyn Tilden delivered a similar message regarding the work of the McKinley Blue Ribbon Uranium task force, and we hope to have support from council delegates and various community members from the Navajo Nation for our task force. 

Around 120 people signed in for the film screening.  Many participants brought their children with them. We served homemade cake made from a community member of Tseyatoh Chapter. We gave out door prizes donated by the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE), Red Water Pond Road Community and Octavia Fellin Public Library. 

In my introduction message to the public, I honored my late uncle, also a respected community leader, who passed away the night before due to cancer.  He was the 5th member of his immediate family to contract cancer. Sadly, the cancer took his life fast. His family are livestock owners and have been for a very long time. They live near the Rio Puerco wash at Manuelito just west of Gallup. Like his family, there are other families who are livestock owners and have also lost many family members due to various cancers. No study has ever been done on the Rio Puerco wash after the toxic mine spill in regards to the effects it has on the human population. A mere mention to human health was provided in a study of the effects on animals near the Church Rock uranium mining area where the spill occurred in 1979, as well as along the Rio Puerco. The proposed task force needs to strongly encourage a study on the various cancer rates and how it may be associated with uranium exposure among the human population within the McKinley County region. 

I would also like to acknowledge a community member from Oak Springs (Navajo Nation/AZ), a Chapter community located just north of Tse Siani (Lupton, AZ). Patrick Hernasy, who volunteered his assistance to take care of the sign-in and information booth in the lobby, stayed the entire four hours taking care of the lobby entrance to the theatre. I appreciate his time and efforts put in at the event.   

Overall, for the entire two days, the energy was very positive, and I believe we fulfilled the request from what community members wanted. In addition to the annual 40th commemoration at Red Water Pond community, the community wanted a film screening. We were successful in having our first uranium film screening. The community was happy that we accomplished a great weekend.