The Church Rock Uranium Mill Spill

In 1968, the United Nuclear Corporation initiated mining operations in the largest underground uranium mine in the United States. Located in Church Rock, New Mexico, in the Navajo Native American Reservation, the Church Rock Mill produced more than two million pounds of uranium oxide per year. Waste from the mining process was disposed of in three lined lagoons fortified by a man-made dam built on geologically unsound land—of which both the United Nuclear Corporation and state and federal agencies were aware. On 16 July, 1979, the dam breached and 1100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water seeped into the Puerco River. Scientists estimate that the amount of radiation released in the Church Rock uranium mill spill was larger than the amount released at Three Mile Island, just four months prior. Surrounding residents of the mill, almost entirely Navajos, relied on the Puerco River as a watering source for livestock. They have since suffered severe health problems due to substantial increases in radioactivity found in the water, soil, and air. Despite several selective investigations and cleanup efforts by the US Environmental Protection Agency, ramifications of the spill remain evident in the Navajo Nation today. 

Contributed by Tommy Smith
Course: Global Environmental History
Instructor: Andrew Stuhl, Ph.D.
Bucknell University Lewisburg, US

Further Readings: 
  • Brugge, Doug, deLemos, Jamie, and Bui, Cat. “The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities.” In: American Journal of Public Health 97, no. 9 (2007): 1595-1600.
  • Miles Viers, Becky. “Environmental Law: Uranium Mining on the Navajo Reservation.” In: American Indian Law Review 7, no. 1 (1979): 115-124.