By Denise Tessier
At the risk of initially sounding weird, I remember where I was when word came that United Nuclear’s uranium tailings ponds had breached and spilled radioactive sludge into the Rio Puerco at Church Rock in western New Mexico. The event remains the largest uranium tailings spill in U.S. history.
I remember because that particular day I had taken off from my full-time job as environment writer for the Albuquerque Journal – where, among numerous other things, I covered the uranium industry and wrote countless stories leading up to the opening of the nuclear Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. I took the day off so I could attend a conference in Albuquerque and make a little extra money freelancing for Nucleonics Week.
I don’t remember what story I came up with for the McGraw Hill publication, but remember well standing in the Albuquerque Convention Center hallway, hearing about the spill, the front page story that would have been part of my normal reporting beat (that first story ended up being written by another reporter). I was off that day – July 16, 1979 – because the Journal let staffers take a day for birthdays.
Because it was my day, I immediately noticed a coincidence that would not be picked up until later stories covering the spill. That is, that the breach occurred on the anniversary of another historic nuclear event in New Mexico, the testing of the first atomic bomb at White Sands.
If you’re old enough, you might remember having in your home paper calendars that businesses gave out as advertising in the 1950s and early ’60s. They had squares to write in appointments, but were notable for colorful illustrations that popped up on certain days – white-haired George Washington on his birthday, dark-bearded Abraham Lincoln on his (President’s Day hadn’t been created yet). A heart or arrow-toting cupid landed on Valentine’s Day, a crucifix graced Good Friday and a lily or colored egg could be found on Easter Sunday. The American flag or fireworks illustrated July 4.
On my birthday, July 16, the calendars had a mushroom cloud.
Nuclear events are part and parcel of New Mexico’s history – radiation showers after the bomb test, uranium tailings blowing dust off huge piles near Grants, radioactive rivulets trickling in the canyons near Los Alamos, yellowcake sludge spilling over the banks of the “Perky”, as the Navajo affectionately called the Rio Puerco that slaked the thirst of their sheep before the spill. This year, Valentine’s Day saw the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s first radiation leak.
The Trinity nuclear weapons test was conducted July 16, 1945. Today marks the 35th anniversary of the Church Rock spill.
After the spill, I went out to Gallup and Church Rock and wrote stories about the people who relied on the mutton from the sheep that sometimes continued to drink from the Rio Puerco for water. The lead sentence on one was something like, “The Navajo have no word for radiation.”
Earlier this month, on July 7, my former New Mexico Independent editor Trip Jennings did a 35-year remembrance on the Church Rock spill for his more recent journalistic venture, New Mexico In Depth. “Remembering the largest radioactive spill in U.S. history ” not only recounts the spill, but includes insights about its legacy and that of uranium mining from former Los Angeles Times reporter Judy Pasternak’s book, Yellow Dirt.
Here’s one excerpt Jennings picked up from Yellow Dirt about the Church Rock spill:
The water, filled with acids from the milling process, twisted a metal culvert in the Puerco and burned the feet of a little boy who went wading. Sheep keeled over and died, and crops curdled along the banks. The surge of radiation was detected as far away as Sanders, Arizona, fifty miles downstream.
The IHS (Indian Health Service) and the state urged Navajos not to drink the water nor enter it, nor let their animals do so, anywhere downstream from the spill. But the people by the Puerco didn’t have many alternatives.
Kudos to Jennings for taking the time to recount the spill for the many who might not even be aware of it.
I’m glad he remembered, as we all should.