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A Bit of History: Uranium Milling and the Church Rock Disaster

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  • Romi Elnagar
    Uranium Milling and the Church Rock Disaster Church Rock, New Mexico, would seem an improbable spot for a nuclear disaster. A dusty cluster of industrial
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 10, 2012
      Uranium Milling and the Church Rock Disaster

      Church Rock, New Mexico, would seem an improbable spot for a nuclear
      disaster. A dusty cluster of industrial machinery set in the arid
      mesas of the great Southwest, its most distinguishing feature might be
      considered a large pond of murky liquid, unusual in such dry terrain.
      Church Rock also hosts a series of underground uranium mine shafts, a
      mill, and a scattered community of Navajo families who survive by
      herding cattle, goats, and sheep.
      A deep gully leads from the mine site into the Rio Puerco, which
      once flowed only when fed by spring rains. Now it is wet year round,
      bolstered by water pumped from the mine shafts to keep them from
      flooding. That water flowing from the mine is laced with radioactive
      isotopes. And the pond hides a burden of contaminated waste.
      The 350 families who water livestock in the Rio Puerco rely on their
      small herds to eke out a meager existence. Many are members of the
      Dine--Navajo--Nation, with incomes in the range of two thousand
      dollars per year. During the hot days of the desert summer local
      children would play in the stream as their parents tended the goats,
      sheep, and cattle.

      A Wall of Radioactive Water
      In the early morning hours of July 16, 1979--fourteen weeks after
      the accident at Three Mile Island--all of that changed. The dam at
      Church Rock burst sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill
      wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid pouring
      toward Arizona. The wall of water backed up sewers and lifted manhole
      covers in Gallup, twenty miles downstream, and caught people all along
      the river unawares. "There were no clouds, but all of a sudden the
      water came," remembered Herbert Morgan of Manuelito, New Mexico. "I
      was wondering where it came from. Not for a few days were we
      No one was killed in the actual flood. But along the way it left
      residues of radioactive uranium, thorium, radium, and polonium, as
      well as traces of metals such as cadmium, aluminum, magnesium,
      manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, sodium, vanadium, zinc, iron,
      lead and high concentrations of sulfates.[2] The spill degraded the
      western Rio Puerco as a water source. It carried toxic metals already
      detectable at least seventy miles downstream.[3] And it raised the
      specter that uranium mining in the Colorado River Basin may be
      endangering Arizona's Lake Mead, and with it the drinking water of Las
      Vegas, Los Angeles, and much of Arizona.
      Except for the bomb tests, Church Rock was probably the biggest
      single release of radioactive poisons on American soil. Ironically it
      occurred thirty-four years to the day after the first atomic test
      explosion at Trinity, New Mexico, not far away.
      The source of the catastrophe was uranium mill wastes. Usable
      uranium is extracted from the sandstone in which it is usually found
      by grinding it fine and leaching it with sulfuric acid. The acid
      carries off the desired isotopes. But the leftover waste
      sands--"tailings"--still contain 85 percent of the ore's original
      radioactivity, and 99.9 percent of its original volume. There are now
      some 140 million tons of them scattered around the West. NRC
      commissioner Victor Gilinsky and others consider them "the dominant
      contribution to radiation exposure" of the entire nuclear fuel
      cycle.[4] The acid milling liquids--called "liquor"--also dissolve
      dangerous traces of thorium 230, radium 222, lead 210, and other
      isotopes. Because of their high radioactivity the tailings and liquor
      both must be isolated from the environment--but nobody has yet
      demonstrated a method with any long-term success.
      At Church Rock several hundred million gallons of the liquor were
      being held in a large pond so the liquids could evaporate off and the
      solid tailings be stored. The whole complex was owned by the United
      Nuclear Corporation (UNC), a Virginia-based firm with assets in the
      hundreds of millions of dollars and influence in the New Mexico state
      government. Its dam and pond at Church Rock were opened with the
      understanding that they would operate just eighteen months; twenty-five
      months later, at the time of the accident, no alternative sites
      were being developed.
      The UNC dam wall was an earthen structure with a clay core, twenty-five
      feet high and thirty feet wide. On the morning of the accident a
      twenty-foot-wide section of it gave way, wreaking havoc downstream.
      In the desert, water is synonymous with life. In contaminating the
      Rio Puerco, UNC had threatened the basis of existence for all of the
      people who lived downstream. For the first time they confronted the
      terrors of radioactivity. "Our hearts have been broken," said Bodie
      McCray of Tsayotah. "We don't sleep worrying about it. I worry about
      our children and their children."
      Indeed the hundreds of families living near the spill now had to
      live with the same kinds of uncertainties just beginning to plague the
      people of central Pennsylvania. "Ever since the accident we've been
      wanting the truth," said Kee Bennally, a silversmith playing a lead
      role in the multimillion-dollar lawsuit against UNC. "They say it's
      not dangerous and in a couple of days they say it is dangerous. It's
      been really confusing, especially for the old people. They don't know
      anything about this, the contamination, the radiation. . . ."[5]
      What made the Church Rock disaster especially tragic was that it
      could have been avoided. Soon after the spill an angry U.S.
      representative Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) told a congressional hearing
      that "at least three and possibly more Federal and state regulatory
      agencies had ample opportunity to conclude that such an accident was
      likely to occur." Even before the dam had been licensed "the
      company's own consultant predicted that the soil under this dam was
      susceptible to extreme settling which was likely to cause [its]
      cracking and subsequent failure."[6]
      Cracks had developed in the dam the year it opened, said Udall.
      Aerial photographs revealed that liquor, which was supposed to be kept
      away from the dam face, was lapping against it. State-required
      seepage devices and monitoring wells had never been built or inspected
      UNC's chief operating officer, J. David Hann, countered Udall by
      blaming the accident on "a unique rock point, beneath the breach."
      Because the dam had been built partly on bedrock and partly on softer
      ground, that rock point "served as a fulcrum, resulting in transverse
      cracking." The breach was "like many things you undertake," Hann told
      the congressional hearing. "They have a risk, and we undertook this.
      There was a circumstance that was not foreseen at the time."[8]
      But coming in the wake of Three Mile Island, and in light of
      considerable evidence of impending disaster, Hann's arguments seemed
      to carry little weight. In a special report the U.S. Army Corps of
      Engineers charged that if the dam had been built to legal
      specifications, according to approved design, "it is possible that the
      failure would not have occurred."[9] And a spokesman from the New
      Mexico State Engineer's Office added that a "consensus" of engineers
      who reviewed the accident agreed that "had the drain zone been
      constructed according to the approved plans and specifications, and
      had the tailings beach been in place as recommended by [UNC's]
      engineers, it is likely that failure would not have occurred."[10]
      At the time of the disaster the dam was carrying a load of tailings
      liquor at least two feet higher than allowed for in its designs. The
      company had also failed to tell the state that cracking had been
      observed. "There were significant warnings appearing before the dam
      broke," said William Dircks, director of the NRC's Office of Nuclear
      Material Safety and Safeguards. "I think that is the troubling part
      of it."[11]
      Ultimately, for the company, the accident would mean a loss of some
      revenue and bad publicity. For the people downstream life itself was
      at stake. "Somehow," complained Frank Paul, vice-president of the
      Navajo Tribal Council, "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."[12]
      Ironically the Church Rock dam was a "state-of-the-art" structure.
      Paul Robinson, an Albuquerque-based expert on mining issues, warned
      the Udall hearings that "UNC-Church Rock was the most recently built
      and the most carefully engineered tailings dam in the state." Similar
      dams owned by Anaconda, Kerr-McGee, UNC-Homestake Partners, and Sohio
      were "disasters waiting to happen."[13]
      1. Kathie Saltzstein, "Navajos Ask $12.5 Million in UNC Suits," Gallup
      Independent, August 14, 1980 (hereafter cited as "Navajos"); for a
      general analysis of the relationship between Indians and uranium
      development, see Joseph G. Jorgenson, et al., "Native Americans and
      Energy Development" (Cambridge, Ma.: Anthropology Resources Center,
      1978); for a broad range of information on the issue of uranium mining
      and milling, contact the Black Hills Alliance, Box 2508, Rapid City, SD
      2. Edwin K. Swanson, "Water Quality Problems in the Puerco River," paper
      presented at the American Water Resources Association Symposium, Water
      Quality Monitoring and Management, Tucson, Arizona, October 24, 1980.
      3. Edwin K. Swanson, interview, May 1981.
      4. Victor Gilinsky, "The Problem of Uranium Mill Tailings," paper
      presented at the Pacific Southwest Minerals and Energy Conference,
      Anaheim, California, May 2, 1978 (Washington, D.C.: NRC Office of
      Public Affairs), No. S-78-3, p. 3 (hereafter cited as "Problem"). See
      also, EPA, Environmental Analysis of the Uranium Fuel Cycle, Part
      I--Fuel Supply, EPA-520/9-73-003-B, Washington, D.C: EPA Office of
      Radiation Programs, 1973, p. 26.
      5. Chris Shuey, "Calamity at Church Rock, New Mexico," Saturday Magazine,
      Scottsdale Daily Progress, Part 1, February 14, 1981, p. 3 (hereafter
      cited as "Calamity").
      6. 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, pp. 1-4
      (hereafter cited as Church Rock Hearings).
      7. Ibid.
      8. Ibid., p. 120.
      9. Ibid., p. 3.
      10. Ibid., p. 42.
      11. Ibid., p. 39.
      12. Ibid., p. 8.
      13. Ibid., pp. 225-232. 


      Harvey Wasserman and Norman Soloman.  "Uranium Mining and the Church Rock Disaster." in Killing Our Own:  The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation.

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