Indigenous Peoples: Background
Pollution of past mines: Church Rock
The majority of mining in the United States occurred during the time period between WWII and the end of the Cold War. Former mines, now closed, continue to pose a serious health and environmental threat. Because of the radioactive nature of uranium and its half life of 4.5 billion years, the pollution it causes when released into the environment through mining will have long term effects. Even the waste tailings, whose uranium content is significantly lower, has long term effects on the environment because it contains thorium 230 and radium 226 whose half lives are 75,000 years and 1,600 years. It is therefore impossible to overlook the mining pollution from 30 years ago; the dangers it poses to the surrounding area and communities are as real now as they were when uranium mining commenced.
Every mining site produces some level of pollution due to the pile up of radioactive waste rock, and the inevitable leaking and dumping of contaminated waters and waste products. Church Rock, New Mexico, part of the Navajo Nation, provides a good picture of the ongoing damage mines cause and the difficulty Native Americans have in ensuring that mining companies will take responsibility for their pollution.
Church Rock is a former mining site which has been closed for over 20 years, yet without ever being properly decommissioned. The mine experienced a massive mining waste (tailings) spill in 1979 when a dam broke and sent over 1,000 tons of tailings and 100 million gallons of radioactive water flooding out and into the Puerco River. The radioactive pollution spread quickly, and the Puerco River recorded 7,000 times the amount of radioactivity allowable for drinking water, though some reports at the time stated that the spill didn’t pose an immediate health hazard.
In the present day, the abandoned Church Rock mine site still has a 30 foot high pile of mining waste, very near to which Navajo homes exist and children play, and which spreads radioactive dust over the area whenever the wind blows . The Puerco River still contains radioactive levels unsafe to drink, though many Navajo water their livestock from it due to a lack of choice and ability to prevent animals from entering the poisonous water. What results is a constant exposure to radioactivity through the inhalation of dust, eating plants onto which the dust has settled, and consuming livestock with build-ups of radioactivity in their muscles, kidneys and livers.
The Navajo Nation has appealed to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to aid them in getting on the priority list for Superfund, a multi-billion dollar US government fund which is meant to pay for the cleaning up of toxic sites. Church Rock Mine is on the Superfund list, along with more of Navajo Nation’s nearly 1,000 abandoned mines. The legal processes are slow and no steps forward have been made to effectively clean up the mine. Worse even is a new proposal in works by Uranium Resources Inc. to test mine in Church Rock and Crownpoint in 2008. The Navajo Nation in 2006 declared that uranium mining would no longer be allowed on Navajo land, but regardless the company is challenging whether or not the area in question is “Indian Land” and if Navajo law could be applicable.
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