Story told by:
Diné No Nukes and Nuclear Issues Study Group
As an indigenous person whose ancestral connections to the land are rooted in the occupied territories of “New Mexico,” and as an anti-nuclear activist, the connection between the marginalization and oppression of people of color in this state and the incidence of widespread radioactive contamination is unmistakable.
White settler colonialism has been perfected over centuries, and built upon deliberate institutionalized racism.
The United States once mandated genocide and the forced removal of indigenous peoples to uplift an American society of privileged white men to make decisions about our future and the future of Mother Earth. With modern technology, the process of removal and genocide has taken new forms and may have slowed in pace, but has not ended.
The drive for nuclear domination, first military and later electrical, has left thousands of abandoned uranium mines, over a hundred aging reactors, the funding to continue for decades, and no safe place to put the waste.
In New Mexico, we consider ourselves in the belly of the nuclear beast
and July 16th is an anniversary that reminds us of the omnipresence of that beast.
July 16, 1945 was the day of the first atomic blast. The Trinity Test left countless victims with various cancers, health problems, and fallout that covered much of the state. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) compensates uranium workers during or prior to 1971, “onsite participants” of U.S. nuclear weapons test sites, and downwinders of the Nevada nuclear test site who developed compensable health problems. RECA does not cover uranium workers after 1971 or downwinders from other test sites such as the Trinity Site, yet many are suffering from illness or have already dies at the hands of the U.S. government. Representative Ben Ray Lujan (NM) has been pushing for changes to RECA in Congress on behalf of post-1971 workers and those from the impacted area known as the Tularosa Basin.
Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC), is an organizer and advocate for the impacted community. TBDC has done a Health Impact Assessment to get the support in Congress to expand RECA coverage. This year, TBDC is planning a National Trinity Day of Remembrance to bring attention to all downwinders. Cordova states, “We are hoping to get organizations representing the Downwinders in places like Idaho and the Pacific Islands and the Post 71 Uranium miners/workers to hold candlelight vigils of their own in remembrance of the people who’ve lost their lives as a result of Nuclear testing and uranium mining around the country. The candlelight vigil in Tularosa is scheduled for 7:30 pm on July 20, 2019.”
Cordova continues, “We never thought that it would take this long for Congress to pass the RECA Amendments to add the New Mexico Downwinders to the fund… We add new names every year to our list. People are dying...It is high time for the people of New Mexico to receive the justice they’ve been denied for 74 years.”
Churchrock Mill Spill of 1979
It’s been over fifty years since the mining industry came to the homes of the Diné (Navajo) community located along Red Water Pond Road (RWPR), north of Churchrock, and started one of the largest superfund sites in the country with two uranium mines and a mill nearby.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the world’s largest uranium milling disaster, which occurred near RWPR. The uranium company United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) knowingly and willfully continued using a uranium mill waste tailings pond that had a cracked dam wall. In the early morning hours of July 16, 1979, the dam breached and over 90 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste and 1,100 tons of solid waste spilled into the environment, reaching the Puerco River and eventually Arizona.
Today, the RWPR community continues to demand reparations for the two mines where Mother Earth was raped decades ago, yet radiation remains. They are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the cleanup of one mine, formerly Kerr McGee (now owned by GE) and UNC is proposing a cleanup of the other. UNC’s plan is to pile mine waste on top of the existing mill waste and cover it with clay to be stored there in perpetuity. The proposal does not include cleanup of any off-site contamination nor does it address the spill path.
Residents living near the Puerco River say that when it rains today, they can still smell the chemicals from the spill.
Edith Hood, Diné community organizer of RWPR Community Association says, “We, the people of the Red Water Pond Road, are still waiting for equality and justice to be served. The toxic contamination of our Mother Earth and her people has not been addressed – a lot of talk and not enough action.” In Hood’s public testimony at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s public scoping meeting for UNC’s proposed cleanup, she stated, “They are just waiting for us to die.”
On the weekend of July 13-14, 2019, RWPR Community Association will hold a commemoration event to recognize 40 years since that disaster and the hard work done by the community, as well as that which remains left for the government and responsible companies to address.
With both past issues remaining today, New Mexicans are fighting a new nuclear threat. The Holtec proposal for a Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) is looming. The application to store all of the waste from every U.S. reactor was officially accepted by the NRC in 2018 on that infamous day of July 16.
From the onset of the Manhattan Project to CIS, New Mexicans live with nuclear colonialism.
The radioactive injustices that were once focused on indigenous people now threaten everyone. With the industrialization of splitting the atom, the totality of the impacts to humanity is unknown. For those of us living in places with artificially-available, ionizing radiation; radiation does not discriminate, and we will forever pass on this history of nuclearism in our DNA.