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The Church Rock uranium mill spill occurred in the U.S. state of New Mexico on July 16, 1979, when United Nuclear Corporation's tailings disposal pond at its uranium mill in Church Rock breached its dam.[1][2] The accident remains the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, having released more radioactivity than the Three Mile Island accident four months earlier.[2][3][4][5]

UNC Church Rock
Superfund site
United Nuclear Corporation Church Rock Uranium Mill.jpeg
United Nuclear Corporation mill site near Church Rock
Geography
CityGallup, New Mexico
CountyMcKinley
StateNew Mexico
Coordinates35°39′03″N 108°30′23″W / 35.65083°N 108.50639°W / 35.65083; -108.50639Coordinates: 35°39′03″N 108°30′23″W / 35.65083°N 108.50639°W / 35.65083; -108.50639
UNC Church Rock is located in New Mexico
UNC Church Rock
UNC Church Rock
2,133 m (6,998 ft)
Information
CERCLIS IDNMD030443303
ContaminantsMetals, radionuclides
Responsible
parties
United Nuclear Corporation
Progress
ProposedDecember 30, 1982
ListedAugust 8, 1983
Construction
completed
August 29, 1998
List of Superfund sites

The mill was located on privately owned land about 17 miles (27 km) north of Gallup, New Mexico, and bordered to the north and southwest by Navajo Nation Tribal Trust lands.[6] The breach released more than 1,100 short tons (1,000 t) of solid radioactive mill waste and 94 million US gallons (360,000 m3) of acidic, radioactive tailings solution into the Puerco River through Pipeline Arroyo. An estimated 1.36 short tons (1.23 t) of uranium and 43 trillion picocuries of alpha contaminants traveled 80 miles (130 km) downstream[7] to Navajo County, Arizona, and onto the Navajo Nation.[2] In addition to being radioactive and acidic, the spill contained toxic metals and sulfates.[8] The spill contaminated groundwater and rendered the Puerco unusable to local residents, mostly Navajo peoples who used the river's water for drinking, irrigation, and livestock. They were not warned for days of the toxic dangers from the spill.[2]

The Governor of New Mexico Bruce King refused the Navajo Nation's request that the site be declared a federal disaster area, limiting aid to affected residents.[9] The nuclear contamination event received less media coverage than that of Three Mile Island, likely because it occurred in a lightly populated, rural area.[10]

In 2003, the Churchrock Chapter of the Navajo Nation began the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project to assess environmental impacts of abandoned uranium mines; it found significant radiation from both natural and mining sources in the area.[11] The EPA National Priorities List currently includes the Church Rock tailings storage site, where "groundwater migration is not under control."[12]

Contents

Dam failureEdit

At around 5:30 am on July 16, 1979, a previously identified crack opened into 20-foot-breach (6.1 m) in the south cell of United Nuclear Corporation's Church Rock temporary uranium mill tailings disposal pond, and 1,100 short tons (1,000 t) of solid radioactive mill waste and about 93 million US gallons (350,000 m3) of acidic, radioactive tailings solution flowed into Pipeline Arroyo, a tributary of the Puerco River.[2][4][13][14] Warnings of an impending spill had been ignored by the state and by United Nuclear Corporation.[15] Though the uranium mill only bordered the Navajo Nation, the tailings spilled onto the Navajo Nation as they flowed down the Puerco River.[2]

 
The 20-foot (6.1 m) breach in the tailings dam formed around 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1979.[2]

The tailings solution had a pH of 1.2[16] and a gross alpha particle activity of 128 nanocuries (4.7 kBq) per liter, and contained radioactive uranium, thorium, radium, polonium, metals including cadmium, aluminium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, sodium, vanadium, zinc, iron, lead, and high concentrations of sulfates.[17] The contaminated water from the Church Rock spill traveled 80 miles (130 km) downstream, through Gallup, New Mexico, and reached as far as Navajo County, Arizona. The flood backed up sewers, affected nearby aquifers, and left stagnating, contaminated pools on the riverside.[4][18][19]

As the highly acidic spill traveled downstream, alkaline soils and clays neutralized the acid and adsorbed much of the contaminants. The contaminated sediments were gradually dispersed by the river and diluted by “clean” sediment. In parts of river system with higher concentrations of contaminants, yellow salt crystals precipitated onto the arroyo bed. These salts, containing metals and radionuclides, were washed away during subsequent rainstorms. Approximately one month after the spill, the Puerco River had regained normal levels of salinity, acidity, and radioactivity at low flow levels, with contaminants only being detectable after heavy rains. The EPA reported no long-term effects of the spill, but noted that contaminant levels from uranium mine effluents and natural sources were “environmentally significant”.[20]

ResponseEdit

At 6:00 am, a United Nuclear Corporation employee noticed the breach and suspended further discharge of tailings solution to the holding pond.[4] By 8:00, a temporary dike had stopped the flow of residual tailings solution.[4]

Several days after the spill, the Indian Health Service and the Environmental Improvement Division of New Mexico warned local residents over the radio and with signs written only in English to not drink from, water livestock at, or enter the Puerco River. Many Navajo people in the area speak only Dine, an Athabaskan language spoken by 150,000 people in the Navajo Nation.

The states of Arizona and New Mexico failed to make their residents immediately aware of the dangers of radiation.[21][22] United Nuclear Corporation employees were dispatched to warn Navajo-speaking residents downstream in accordance with a state contingency plan, but not until a few days after the spill.[3][23] The Navajo Nation asked the governor of New Mexico, Bruce King, to request disaster assistance from the US government and have the site declared a disaster area, but he refused, which limited disaster relief assistance to the Navajo Nation.[4]

Although the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division said the spill's "short-term and long-term impacts on people and the environment were quite limited"[24], ponds of uranium contaminated water lined the Puerco River and seeped into wells. United Nuclear denied claims that the spill caused livestock deaths, even though the Navajo economy which was dependent on the sale of mutton was decimated. The company said in a statement issued by an attorney, "We just don't know of any substance to those claims. Some people aren't going to be satisfied no matter how thoroughly you show it."[24] Navajo Tribal Council's vice president Frank Paul said of the worst spill in US history, "Somehow, United Nuclear Corporation was permitted to locate a tailings pond and a dam on an unstable geologic formation. Somehow, UNC was allowed to design an unsafe tailings dam not in conformance to its own design criteria. Somehow, UNC was permitted to inadequately deal with warning cracks that had appeared over two years prior to the date the dam failed. Somehow, UNC was permitted to continue a temporary dam for six months beyond its design life. Somehow, UNC was permitted to have a tailings dam without either an adequate contingency plan or sufficient men and material in place to deal with a spill. Somehow, UNC was permitted to deal with the spill by doing almost nothing."[25]

Under the "agreement state" legislative framework of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission left New Mexico to handle the dam failure until October 12, 1979, when it was notified that the state would permit the uranium mill to resume operation that week. The NRC then suspended United Nuclear's operating license until it could be determined that the embankment was stable.[26] After fewer than four months of downtime following the dam failure, the mill resumed operations on November 2, 1979. This further contaminated the groundwater and resulted in the mill site's placement on the EPA's National Priorities List in 1983.[4][13] United Nuclear made a $525,000 out-of-court settlement with the Navajo Nation a year after the spill.[27]

The accident released more radioactivity than the Three Mile Island accident.[2][3][4] The spill has been called "the largest radioactive accident in U.S. history," but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said that this is "an overstatement," and that "there have been a number of other events that have been more significant in terms of radiological impact. The event was more significant from an environmental perspective than from a human one."[1]

CausesEdit

 
A diagrammed cross section of the breach from the report commissioned by the NRC. The "point" in the bedrock that UNC said acted as a fulcrum in the dam's breach is visible beneath the embankment.
 
Extent of seepage-impacted groundwater, weakening South Cell wall foundations

The dam formed the southern wall of one of the mill's three holding ponds, which were used to evaporate tailings solution until the remaining solid waste could be buried.[28] From 1967 to 1982, the mill produced an average of 4,000 short tons (3,600 t) of tailings every day, for a total of 3.5 million short tons (3.2 Mt).[6][29][30] The 35-foot (11 m) high embankment was constructed on a deposit of collapsible clayey, silty sand a one hundred feet (30 m) deep.[16] United Nuclear used a new design, recommended by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that used earth rather than tailings themselves as building material.[21] The holding pond was not lined, a violation of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978.[21] This allowed tailings solution to seep into the ground, weakening the foundation of the dam and contaminating the groundwater.[16]

Horizontal and vertical cracks formed along the southern part of the embankment, allowing the acidic tailings solution to penetrate and weaken the embankment.[16] A sand beach was constructed to protect the face of the embankment from the tailings solution, but it was not properly maintained. The liquid in the holding pond eventually rose two feet (0.61 m) higher than the dam's designed limit, past the point where the sand beach could protect the dam.[16][31] The United States Army Corps of Engineers concluded in its report to Governor Bruce King of New Mexico that the principal cause of failure was differential settlement of the foundation beneath the dam wall,[32] and the report commissioned by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission corroborated this conclusion.[16] Critical variations in tailings pond operation practice from approved procedures contributed further to the dam failure.[21][32] United Nuclear's Chief Operating Officer, J. David Hann, blamed the failure of dam on the pointed shape of the bedrock beneath the embankment, which he said acted as a fulcrum and weakened the dam.[3]

In December 1977, independent consultants spotted cracks in the dam wall. Three months later, United Nuclear sealed the cracks with bentonite and kerosene slurry[16] but took little or no other action,[21] despite the consultant's urging for regular inspections of the dam.[21] Further cracking was noted in October 1978. Neither the facility owner nor the State Engineer were formally notified of the cracks, though Arizona representative Morris K. Udall testified before Congress that at least three federal and state agencies had "ample opportunity" to predict that the dam's failure was likely.[32][33] At the same Congressional hearing, the United States Army Corps of Engineers testified that had the dam been built according to legal specifications, the failure would not have occurred.[28]

EffectsEdit

 
A sign placed by the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division discouraging use of the Puerco River.

Shortly after the breach, below the dam radioactivity levels of river water were 7000 times that of the allowable level of drinking water.[34] United Nuclear initially claimed that only one curie of radioactivity had been released in the spill, but that figure was later revised upward by the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division.[35] In all, 46 curies (1.7 TBq) of radioactivity were released.[36]

Prior to the spill, local residents used the riverside for recreation and herb-gathering, and children often waded in the Puerco River.[4] Residents who waded in the river after the spill went to the hospital complaining of burning feet and were misdiagnosed with heat stroke.[18] Burns acquired by some of those who came into contact with the contaminated water developed serious infections and required amputations.[27] Herds of sheep and cattle died after drinking the contaminated water, and children played in pools of contaminated water.[28][37] The spill contaminated shallow aquifers near the river that residents drank and used to water livestock.[38] 1,700 people lost access to clean water after the spill.[28] United Nuclear Corporation distributed 600 gallon-jugs of clean water, but the affected area required more than 30,000 US gallons (110,000 l; 25,000 imp gal) of water daily.[2] The three community wells serving Church Rock had already been closed, one because of high radium levels and the other two for high levels of iron and bacteria.[39] The Indian Health Service advised the tribe to repair five shallow wells along the Puerco River and said that the wells "are not expected to show any contamination, if at all, for several years."[2] The Navajo Nation spent $100,000 on clean water,[40] and in 1981, the New Mexico and federal governments stopped providing water, which they had delivered by truck since the spill.[41]

An epidemiological study conducted by the NMEID in 1989 concluded that "the health risk to the public from eating exposed cattle is minimal, unless large amounts of this tissue, especially liver and kidney, are ingested."[42] An Indian Health Service study found significantly higher levels of radionuclides in Church Rock cattle compared to livestock from non-mining areas. The study's authors advised that contamination would not pose a risk as long as residents did not depend on livestock for food over long periods of time, but local Navajos did.[43] A few Navajo children were sent to Los Alamos to be checked for radiation exposure, but no long-term monitoring was undertaken, prompting a local writer to comment that the IHS spent more effort studying livestock than the people affected.[43] No ongoing epidemiological studies have been done at Church Rock.[4][44] Studies have shown since the 1950s that the Navajo have had significantly higher rates for some cancers than the national average, associated with contamination from the uranium mines and the exposure of workers to radiation.[45][46]

CleanupEdit

 
Removal of radium-contaminated soil in Church Rock in 2007
 
Cleanup of the Church Rock uranium mill site after dam breach

United Nuclear dispatched small crews with shovels and 55-US-gallon (210 l; 46 imp gal) drums to begin cleanup, but expanded the workforce after complaints from local residents and pressure from the state.[31] The crews removed three inches (76 mm) of sediment from the river bed,[47] retrieving about 3,500 barrels (560 m3) of waste materials over the course of three months, but this amount was estimated as only 1% of the solid waste spilled.[4] Groundwater remained contaminated by the spilled tailings solution, and rain transported leftover pollutants downstream into Arizona.[18][31] New Mexico ordered United Nuclear to monitor pools left behind by the spill along the Puerco River, but United Nuclear only measured uranium levels, ignoring the presence of 230Th and 226Ra.[31] The pools contained high levels of sulfuric acid and remained for more than a month after the spill, despite cleanup efforts by the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division.[35] The NMEID ordered United Nuclear to control tailings seepage from the mill in 1979, and the company implemented a limited seepage collective program in 1981.[29]

The Navajo Nation appealed to the governor to request that the president declare the site a federal disaster area, but he refused, reducing the aid available to local residents.[4] United Nuclear continued operation of the uranium mill until 1982, when it closed because of the declining uranium market.[48]

United Nuclear neutralized the acidity of the tailings with ammonia and lime from 1979 to 1982.[49] In 1983, the site was entered on the National Priorities List of the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund investigations and cleanup efforts, as radionuclides and chemical constituents were found to be contaminating local groundwater.[13] The EPA conducted a remedial investigation from 1984 to 1987, and in the NRC approved United Nuclear's closure and reclamation plan in 1988.[49]

In 1994 the EPA extended its efforts with a study of all known uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.[50][51]

The EPA and United Nuclear removed 175,500 cubic feet (4,970 m3) of radium-contaminated soil surrounding five buildings, some residential, in 2007.[30] The soil was moved to an off-site disposal facility.

In 2003 the Churchrock Chapter of the Navajo Nation began the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project to assess environmental impacts of abandoned uranium mines, and build capacity to conduct community-based research with policy implications.[11] Its May 2007 report found significant radiation remaining in the area, from both natural and mining sources.[11]

In 2008, the US Congress authorized a five-year plan for cleanup of contaminated uranium sites on the Navajo reservation.[52] The non-profit Groundswell Educational Films is hosting online videos of the cleanup effort.

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ a b "Navajos mark 20th anniversary of Church Rock spill", The Daily Courier, Prescott, Arizona, July 18, 1999
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Pasternak, Judy (2010). Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed. Free Press. p. 149. ISBN 978-1416594826.
  3. ^ a b c d US Congress, House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. Mill Tailings Dam Break at Church Rock, New Mexico, 96th Cong, 1st Sess (October 22, 1979):19–24.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Brugge, D.; DeLemos, J.L.; Bui, C. (2007), "The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities", American Journal of Public Health, 97 (9): 1595–600, doi:10.2105/ajph.2006.103044, PMC 1963288, PMID 17666688
  5. ^ Quinones, Manuel (December 13, 2011), "As Cold War abuses linger, Navajo Nation faces new mining push", E&E News, retrieved December 28, 2012
  6. ^ a b United Nuclear Corporation (McKinley County) (PDF), EPA, November 21, 2012
  7. ^ Lauri Wirt, "Radioactivity in the Environment: A Case Study of the Puerco and Little Colorado River Basins, Arizona and New Mexico" https://pubs.usgs.gov/wri/1994/4192/report.pdf
  8. ^ The Church Rock Uranium Mill Tailings Spill, Environmental Protection Agency, 1983
  9. ^ Pasternak 2010, p. 150.
  10. ^ Dingmann, Tracy (July 16, 2009). "New attention to Church Rock uranium spill comes 30 years later". The New Mexico Independent. Archived from the original on April 21, 2012. Retrieved May 30, 2019.
  11. ^ a b c Shuey, Chris; et al. (May 2007), Report of the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project 2003-2007, Churchrock Chapter, Navajo Nation, Southwest Research and Information Center and Navajo Education and Scholarship Foundation (PDF), Window Rock, Navajo Nation (Arizona), USA
  12. ^ "EPA Superfund Program: UNITED NUCLEAR CORP., CHURCH ROCK, NM". EPA. Retrieved April 26, 2016.
  13. ^ a b c Second Five-Year Review Report for the United Nuclear Corporation. Ground Water Operable Unit (PDF), EPA, September 2003, archived from the original (PDF) on May 31, 2011
  14. ^ Church Rock tailings spill, The Energy Library, retrieved December 9, 2012
  15. ^ Harvey Wasserman & Norman Solomon, "The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation" https://www.lasg.org/articles/Killing_Our_Own_Alvarez_1982.pdf
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Nelson, John D.; Kane, Joseph D. (1980). The Failure of the Church Rock Tailings Dam . Nuclear Regulatory Commission – via Wikisource.
  17. ^ Rangel, Valerie (2010). "Church Rock Tailings Spill: July 16, 1979". New Mexico Office of the State Historian. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  18. ^ a b c Giusti, Brendan (July 16, 2009), "Radiation Spill in Church Rock Still Haunts 30 Years Later", The Daily Times, Farmington, New Mexico
  19. ^ Szasz, Ferenc Morton (2006). 'Larger Than Life: New Mexico in the Twentieth Century. UNM Press. pp. 82–83. ISBN 978-0-8263-3883-9.
  20. ^ Millard, Jere; Gallagher, Bruce; Baggett, David; Cary, Steven. "The Church Rock Uranium Mill Tailings Spill: A Health and Environmental Assessment" (PDF). Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved December 31, 2014.
  21. ^ a b c d e f Young, Lise (1981), "What Price Progress? Uranium Production on Indian Lands in the San Juan Basin", American Indian Law Review, 9 (1): 1–50, doi:10.2307/20068184, JSTOR 20068184
  22. ^ Brugge, Doug; Benally, Timothy; Yazzie-Lewis, Esther, eds. (2006). The Navajo People and Uranium Mining. University of New Mexico. ISBN 978-0826337795.
  23. ^ Kathie Saltzstein, "Navajos Ask $12.5 Million in UNC Suits," Gallup Independent, August 14, 1980
  24. ^ a b "Uranium Spill Still Worries Navajos", The New York Times, July 21, 1983, retrieved December 9, 2012
  25. ^ U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, Mill Tailings Dam Break at Church Rock, New Mexico, 96th Congress, October 22, 1979
  26. ^ Grammer, Elisa J. (1981), "The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 and NRC's Agreement State Program", Natural Resources Lawyer, 13 (3): 469–522, JSTOR 40922651
  27. ^ a b Kuletz, Valerie (1998). The Tainted Desert. New York: Routledge. p. 27.
  28. ^ a b c d Mantonya, Kurt T. (January 1, 1999), Contamination Nation, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, p. 96
  29. ^ a b Administrative Order in the matter of United Nuclear Corporation (PDF), EPA, June 29, 1989
  30. ^ a b Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis: Northeast Church Rock (NECR) Mine Site, Gallup, New Mexico, San Francisco: EPA Region 9, May 30, 2009, p. 6
  31. ^ a b c d Wasserman, Harry and Norman Solomon, Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation, New York: Dell Publishing Co, 1980.
  32. ^ a b c Roth, Colonel Bernard J (October 9, 1979). Review Comments and Recommendations to Geotechnical Investigational Reports - Church Rock Tailings Dam. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Army Corps of Engineers.
  33. ^ Ward, Sinclair (October 23, 1979), "Uranium Spill Described as Preventable", The Washington Post, p. A5, retrieved December 9, 2012
  34. ^ Bruce E. Johansen "The High Cost of Uranium in Navajoland", Akwesasne Notes New Series, Spring - April May June - 1997, Volume 2 #2, pp. 10-12.
  35. ^ a b Robertson, Bill (October 4, 1979), "Pediatrician says spill underplayed" (PDF), New Mexico Daily Lobo
  36. ^ "Comparison of the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Sequoyah Fuels Corporation, and Church Rock Releases," American Journal of Public Health, 2007, 97(9) pp. 1595-1600.
  37. ^ Brown, Jovana J.; Lambert, Lori (2010), Blowing in the Wind: The Navajo Nation and Uranium, The Evergreen State College
  38. ^ Technical Report on Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials from Uranium Mining Volume 2: Investigation of Potential Health, Geographic, And Environmental Issues of Abandoned Uranium Mines (PDF), Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Radiation and Indoor Air Radiation Protection Division, April 2008, pp. Appendix IV, p. 7
  39. ^ Pasternak 2010, p. 149-150.
  40. ^ Nelkin, Dorothy (1981), "Native Americans and Nuclear Power", Science, Technology & Human Values, 6 (2): 2–13, doi:10.1177/016224398100600201, JSTOR 689554
  41. ^ Chris Shuey, MPH "The Puerco River: Where Did the Water Go?", Southwest Research and Information Center, 1986
  42. ^ Lapham, SC, JB Millard, and JM Samet. "Health implications of radionuclide levels in cattle raised near U mining and milling facilities in Ambrosia Lake, New Mexico. Health Physics Journal, 1989, 56(3) pp. 327-40.
  43. ^ a b Pasternak 2010, p. 151.
  44. ^ Gunter, Linda (September 2009), "Remembering the Forgotten Nuclear Accident", Z Magazine, pp. 6–7
  45. ^ Chris Shuey, MPH Uranium Exposure and Public Health in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation: A Literature Summary Southwest Research and Information Center, 02.27.07, rev.10.14.08
  46. ^ Pinderhughes, Raquel (1996), "The Impact of Race on Environmental Quality: An Empirical and Theoretical Discussion", Sociological Perspectives, 39 (2): 231–48, doi:10.2307/1389310, JSTOR 1389310
  47. ^ Gault, Ramona (September 13, 1989), "Navajos inherity a legacy of radiation", In These Times, Chicago
  48. ^ "UNC Resources Plans to Shut Last Uranium Mine Operation", The Washington Post, May 4, 1982
  49. ^ a b EPA Superfund Record of Decision: United Nuclear Corp., Church Rock, New Mexico: EPA, September 30, 1988
  50. ^ "Abandoned Uranium Mines On The Navajo Nation", EPA Region 9: Superfund, retrieved July 30, 2010
  51. ^ "Addressing Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation", Superfund - Region 9, EPA
  52. ^ Felicia Fonseca, "Navajo woman helps prompt uranium mine cleanup", Associated Press, carried in Houston Chronicle, 5 September 2011, accessed 5 October 2011

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit