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Want a Superfund site with your coffee?

By April 10, 2018January 20th, 2023Climate & Energy, Uranium Mining & Waste, McKinley

By Liliana Castillo, CVNM Communications Director

On a recent windy and bright Wednesday morning in New Mexico, I left my house in Santa Fe at 6 am and drove out to Church Rock near Gallup to hear firsthand from community members who live a stone’s throw from the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history. There’s nothing quite like seeing how close families live to an unmarked Superfund site to get you over having to wake up super early one day, no matter how much you dislike mornings.

Larry King, left, explains how much of the seemingly innocuous land across the road is a Superfund site during an environmental justice tour organized by CVNM Education Fund Western NM Director Talia Boyd in March.

What’s a Superfund site? It’s a designation from the Environmental Protection Agency, identifying it as an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, affecting local ecosystems or people. That means a mining company put dangerous toxic wastes there when it served them, and then left it there once mining was over.

On July 16, 1979, a dam on the Navajo Nation near Church Rock broke, releasing 94 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Puerco River, which runs through nearby communities and into Arizona. The radioactive material was a mixture of water and mill tailings – meaning they were leftovers from the mining process that retained toxic and radioactive contaminants from uranium mining.

The impacts of the spill were immediate. You can read more about that in many places and I recommend New Mexico In Depth’s coverage of the annual remembrance of the event.

On the day of the release, Larry King, a member of the Navajo Nation whose ancestral lands are directly impacted by the release, was working underground in the mine. When he came back up above ground in the afternoon, he was shocked to see a big gaping hole in the dam. I knew this history when I ventured out to Church Rock this time, but I was disheartened to learn that the families living here continue to be impacted by this.

Larry led a group of community members on a tour of the area. We piled into a van and drove from our meeting spot along I-40 out to Church Rock. Only a few minutes down the road from Larry’s home, we stopped at the abandoned site where milling took place during the mining boom from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. The site is where uranium ore was trucked in to be weighed, enriched and shipped off.

Edith Hood, a resident of Red Water Pond Road Community, listens to Larry King share stories of Navajo families getting water from a well by a nearby mine shaft during an environmental justice tour of the area in March.

Across the lone highway that leads out to the Red Water Pond Road Community on the Navajo Nation, Larry identified a seemingly unused area of land as a Superfund site. I was shocked. There were no signs or warnings indicating the danger the site poses to the air, land, water and people that surround it. Not a single sign.

Larry sighed and said “at least there’s a fence now.”

A former United Nuclear Corporation building is the only obvious evidence of industrial mining in the area. Less obvious impacts include water pollution, air pollution, high rates of cancer and respiratory diseases.

He and his neighbors have been dealing with these issues for decades. When the bottom fell out of the uranium market, the companies left, leaving behind toxic waste, including radioactive dust that covers surfaces and blows with the New Mexico winds, that continues to impact the health and environment of the neighboring communities. Families living nearby abandoned uranium mines and mills notice increased rates of cancers and other health problems. Gallup, a small, rural community in the Grants Mining District, is home to a cancer treatment center. State health assessments report that cancer is a leading cause of death in McKinley County.

Legacy uranium mining waste has been impacting the health and environment of communities in western New Mexico for decades. That’s why our Western New Mexico program has been organizing with local residents and community organizations for the past four years, pushing for solutions and help such as cleanup and health studies. Communities in McKinley County that are directly impacted by uranium legacy waste have told us that they do not support proposals to restart uranium mining that will impact their families. Now, we want to ensure that their decision-makers represent their values and protect their air, land, water and communities by supporting efforts to clean up legacy mine waste and preventing new mining so close to communities. If you would like to help, please sign this petition.