"July 16, 1979, just 14 weeks after the Three Mile Island reactor accident, and 34 years to the day after the Trinity atomic test, the small community of Church Rock, N.M., became the scene of another nuclear tragedy.
Ninety-million gallons of liquid radioactive waste and 1,100 tons of solid mill wastes burst through a broken dam wall at the Church Rock uranium mill facility, creating a flood of deadly effluents that permanently contaminated the Rio Puerco river.
No one knows exactly how much radioactivity was released into the air during the Three Mile Island accident. The site monitors were shut down after their measurements of radioactive releases went off the scale.
But the American public knows even less about the Church Rock spill and, five weeks after it occurred, the mine and mill operator, United Nuclear Corp., were back in business at Church Rock as if nothing had happened.
Today, the Church Rock accident is acknowledged as likely the largest single release of radioactive contamination ever to take place in U.S. history (outside of the atomic bomb tests).
Why is the Church Rock spill — that washed into gullies, contaminated fields and the animals that grazed there, and made drinking water deadly — so anonymous in the annals of our nuclear history? Perhaps the answer lies in where it took place and whom it affected.
Church Rock was a small farming community of native Americans, mainly Navajo, eking out a subsistence living off the arid Southwestern land. Nearby, several-hundred-million gallons of liquid uranium mill tailings were sitting in a pond waiting for evaporation to leave behind solid tailings for storage."
Get the Story:
Linda Gunter: Forgotten nuclear accident in Church Rock
(The Ventura County Star 7/16)
Tracy Dingmann: New attention to Church Rock uranium spill comes 30 years later
(The New Mexico Independent 7/16)
Radiation spill in Church Rock still haunts 30 years later
(The Farmington Daily Times 7/16)