Self-Development of People
July 16, 1979 is a day the Navajo Nation in New Mexico will never forget. An earthen dam gave way, releasing 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste and 90 million gallons of acidic and radioactive liquids into the Rio Puerco. The waste traveled downstream across nine Navajo chapters and the community of Gallup. Residents described “a wave of green liquid” heading their way, covering them as they headed home.
The Uranium Tailings Spill is still listed as the largest uranium spill in United States history. Recently, the Red Water Pond Road Community Association hosted its annual commemoration near Church Rock. “In 36 years, we’ve had three minor cleanups in the area, but the contaminated waste is still here,” says the association’s Edith Hood. “We’ve been told by the Environmental Protection Agency that they are waiting on the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete their reviews of the area before additional cleanup work can be done.”
Among the organizations connected to the region is the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE). This grassroots initiative involves several groups working to remove uranium contamination and prohibit future mines in the area. Participants include the Acoma and Laguna Pueblos, residents of the Navajo Nation, the Post 71 Uranium Workers, ranchers, and other communities throughout the affected area.
In January 2014, the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) partnered with MASE to assist in cleanup and public awareness efforts. “This community is facing an uphill battle, considering the government’s sensitivity concerning uranium contamination,” says Cynthia White, SDOP coordinator. “This battle is for clean air, land, and water, and about maintaining spiritual harmony and balance in an indigenous community. SDOP is proud to assist the community in its struggle for a healthy existence on native land.”
The area, known as the San Juan Basin, lacks basic rights to electricity or running water because of radioactive contamination of the land, air, and groundwater. According to MASE, there have been significant numbers of miscarriages and birth defects, as well as confirmed cases of liver and pancreatic cancer in the San Juan Basin. “There are many with breathing problems, including children suffering from asthma and bronchial problems,” says Hood. “I have worked in one of the mines and have been through chemo treatments for lymphoma.” Hood’s group conducts public awareness activity and has been successful at keeping old, abandoned mines from reopening to this date.
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