The Greatest Nuclear Disaster You Never Heard Of

By Rusty Tomlinson

During the fall semester of 2007, I was in Gallup, New Mexico, teaching a reading program to the teachers in the two high schools in the Gallup, McKinley County School District, geographically, the largest school district in the nation. At some 6000 feet, Gallup is in a beautiful high desert. It was a favorite location for western movies. Extremely culturally diverse, Gallup is 44% Native, mostly Navajo, with quite a few Zuni, 34% Hispanic and 21%  Caucasian. Some 15 miles west of Gallup is the Arizona line. Somewhere before that, is the border of the Navajo Reservation, the largest in the nation. The Navajo call themselves Dine’ and their rez Dinetah. Less than five miles east of Gallup is Red Rock State Park, with some beautiful sandstone formations, the highest of which is the steeple shaped Church Rock. East of there is the Dine’ town of Churchrock, New Mexico. Red Rock State Park was a favorite playground of ours. We often went there to hike and climb. 

Pronounced pwayrko and being the Spanish word for pork, puerco is the name of a river, which flows westward through Churchrock, through Gallup, less than a mile to the north of where we lived and on into Arizona. Most of the time we were there, the Puerco River was dry. In the whole time we were there, no one ever told me that it was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in US history.
Uranium is ubiquitous, in nature. If you pick up a handful of soil, you are holding some uranium. While the concentration of uranium varies from place to place, the ratio of U238, known as depleted uranium, and U235 is invariable. In nature, uranium is always found in the ratio of 7000 parts U238 to one part U235. This is why uranium is put through a series of centrifuges. After going through the centrifuges until it is 99.something% U235, it is called weapons grade uranium, but in nature, being mostly U238, heavy metal toxicity is much more hazardous than radiation. In order to be harmful, it must be on your food, in your drink or inhaled.
As I said above, I never heard of the Churchrock nuclear accident, while we were in Gallup. I first heard of it from  Chris Shuey, a researcher with the Southwest Research and Information Service on the podcast Nuclear Hotseat.
The date July 16 is a big date in nuclear history; it is the date of the Trinity Test, which was also in New Mexico. Less well known is July 16, 1979. On that date, mere weeks after the Three Mile. Island disaster, a dam holding uranium tailings was somehow breached near Churchrock, releasing eleven hundred tons of uranium mill tailings and 94 million gallons of water into the Puerco River. In addition to the radiation and the heavy metal toxicity, the water had a ph of 1.5, the same as battery acid, so any person or animal who got into the water was burned. The Puerco River carried the contamination through Gallup and as far as Sanders Arizona, which is located in the New Lands, land which was given to the Dine’ to compensate them for the land they gave to the Hopi.
So, why was the Three Mile Island accident big news, and nobody has ever heard of the larger Churchrock spill just weeks later? Could it be that the Three Mile Island disaster endangered whites while Churchrock endangered a predominantly Native population?
Most Dine’ can choose between three careers; they can herd sheep, join the military or work in the uranium mines which are scattered throughout Dinetah. Poor health is rampant throughout the Rez. One doesn’t have to work in the mines, to be exposed to uranium. Shuey and other researchers took urine samples from newborns and found uranium in the urine, disproving the long held belief that the placenta protects the fetus from all contamination. The researchers found that ill health increases as the homes get nearer the uranium mines and dumps. They found hazardous levels of uranium in the dust from 86% of the homes they analyzed.
A disease which is prevalent among the Dine’ is called Navajo Neuropathy. It is a gradual loss of the  ability to use the extremities, especially the hands. It usually results in death by age four. The Indian Health Services think it is caused by a genetic trait of the Dine’, but the researchers want to test to see if it could have an environmental cause. They have been unable to do this, because the Dine’ medicine people consider DNA sacred and inviolate. The medicine people are highly respected. In Gallup’s Indian Medical Center, modern medicine and such traditional healing arts as sand painting are  practiced simultaneously. The Dine’ government are talking with the medicine people to try to find a way that the research can be done without offending.
So, why do the Dine not leave? Many have, but the Dinetah is sacred to many. Four sacred mountains mark its corners. When a baby is born, it’s umbilical is buried, symbolizing a bond with the land, which is as strong as the bond to a mother.
The Dine’ are not the only New Mexico Natives adversely affected by work being done with radioactive materials. The Los Alamos National Laboratory is very near some streams which are tributaries of the Rio Grande. Pueblo Natives have lived along the Rio Grande’ since the time of their Anasazi ancestors. There is an abnormally high rate of cancer among the Pueblo people. A few years ago, I read that the Federal Government was refusing to fund any research into the reasons for the cancer. I don’t know whether that is still true.
New Mexico’s official nickname is the Land of Enchantment. You have to go there to see how apt that is. The natural beauty is so intense, it seems mystical. It is a land of multiple cultures and languages. It has a unique architecture, using sand and mud to symbolize the close ties the people have with the earth. But it is being poisoned by the nuclear industry, as are other natural wonderlands, such as Colorado, the Columbia River and Tennessee.
One of the things Shuey’s research team wants to do, is to provide opportunities for the Dine’ to continue the research. They want to enable the Dine’ to gain the education necessary to become doctors, health care workers and researchers. What would happen if they were given the opportunity to support themselves, without having to go down into the mines? What would happen?