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Decades After Nuclear Disaster, No Easy Answers For Navajo Community

Ed Williams
Bertha Nez stands near an area of high radiation close to her home

During the Cold War, the Navajo Nation found itself in the middle of a uranium mining boom. Today, more than 500 mineson the reservation are shut down or abandoned—but the pollution they left behind is still very much there. 

A little over 100 people live in the Red Water Pond Road community in northwestern New Mexico. It’s a modest enclave of trailers and barns tucked into a cluster of rugged, scenic mesas. On the surface things look pretty ordinary. But there’s something going on here that’s not normal at all.

"These are the superfund sites, those two mines," said Bertha Nez and her sister Edith Hood, who like most people here, were born and raised in Red Water Pond Road.

We’re looking out over the rocky landscape, at the site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in U.S. history.

The cleanup area stretches across the horizon. There are whole hillsides made of mine waste, vent pipes to aerate underground contamination and fences to keep kids and livestock out. Hood points to a spot where crews with backhoes dug into a burial ground.

"You heard of Three Mile Island?" she asked. "They say this was just as bad. But that was cleaned up, this was not. If this was somewhere in a city near Washington D.C., it would be cleaned up. Quickly."

Starting in the 1960's, three uranium mining companies set up shop within a mile of  Red Water Pond Road, where for years they tunneled for ore and refined it into yellowcake for nuclear weapons. Then on July 16, 1979, a tailings dam holding back acidic uranium waste gave way, spilling millions of gallons of radioactive sludge into a canyon where tribal members grazed their livestock. 

Today, the United Nuclear Church Rock spill and the two other now-abandoned mines are EPA superfund sites.

Credit National Institutes of Health
Abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation

But for years, locals didn’t know the area was dangerous. The sisters say people would take radioactive lumber from the mine shafts to build homes or barns. Uranium dust blew into people’s yards and  soaked into the groundwater.

"My parents lived in this house right there. They used to gather stuff from the mine that was contaminated. But at that time we didn’t know they were contaminated," they said.

Cleaning up that contamination has been a long and complicated process, says Clancy Tenley. He works at the superfund desk at the Environmental Protection Agency.

"I think it’s the most challenging uranium mine cleanup probably that we’ll do on the reservation," he said.

Challenging, because of the sheer amount of pollution. Plus each step in the cleanup has to go through a complex regulatory process with the EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Navajo Nation.

That process has been going on for decades, and is still a long way from being done. In the past, the EPA relocated families during multiple cleanup projects. Now, they’re again offering to move people from Red Water Pond Road.

"The relocations are voluntary," Tenley said. "We’re offering it because we know there will be a lot of disruption during the cleanup, and so we’ve let the residents know that if they’d like to move out during the cleanup we’ll do what we can to make that happen."

And that has become a sticking point for the community. They say they can’t just up and leave—this is their homeland. They are willing to move away from the polluted areas to a nearby mesa. Trouble is, the government can only relocate people to places with infrastructure, like roads and electricity.

But there’s nowhere else on this community’s ancestral land that meets those requirements.

"These are the kinds of problems that require thinking outside the box," said Chris Shuey of the Southwest Research and Information Center. He’s been advocating for the Red Water Pond Road community for decades. Shuey says the EPA’s current relocation policy shouldn’t stop the agency and the companies responsible for the mess from coming up with a way to keep the families on their land.

"The people need justice in the community," he said. "They need a plan that removes them and their progeny from these exposures for as long as it takes to get those sites cleaned up. And we can be talking another 20 years. That’s another generation."

For now, Edith Hood and Bertha Nez say unless they can be relocated nearby, next time the cleanup crews come they’re not going anywhere.

Credit Ed Williams
Red Water Pond Road residents building their community hogan. The flat hill in the background is a waste pile from the abandoned Kerr McGee uranium mine.

And in spite of the looming uncertainty, they’re at work with a group of neighbors building something permanent: a traditional Navajo building called a hogan, where the community can gather for neighborhood meetings or religious ceremonies.

"In the Navajo culture, you’re already tied to the land when you're born," Hood said. "Because in the Navajo [tradition], they take that umbilical cord from you and they bury it where the livestock is, or where the animals are. And they pray that you’ll always come back here."

That connection to the land, she says, is just too strong for any nuclear disaster to break.

Ed Williams came to KUNM in 2014 by way of Carbondale, Colorado, where he worked as a public radio reporter covering environmental issues. Originally from Austin, Texas, Ed has reported on environmental, social justice, immigration and Native American issues in the U.S. and Latin America for the Austin American-Statesman, Z Magazine, NPR’s Latino USA and others. In his spare time, look for Ed riding his mountain bike in the Sandias or sparring on the jiu-jitsu mat.
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