Northeast Church Rock Uranium Mine

By Ariana Vega, SFSU, 2017

From 1967 to 1982, the North East Church Rock Mine was in operation by the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) and is located within the Navajo Nation which is encompassed by Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico [1]. The Uranium mine was created to extract radioactive Uranium to generate nuclear energy and was attractive to indigenous Navajo people during the late 1960’s and through the 1980’s as it provided them with a secure job, and a steady income [2]. Consequently, Navajo workers were exposed to the radioactive material during their labor and suffered unnerving health consequences as a result [3]. Indigenous and environmental activists lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the now categorized Superfund Site, in which the EPA had found contamination of radioactive material both downwind and downstream from the North East Church Rock Uranium Mine [4]. The confirmation of the presence of these toxic substances by the EPA and the racist, colonial motives to build a Uranium mine on Navajo land is what I will be discussing further in my research on the NorthEast Church Rock Uranium Mine.

United_Nuclear_Corporation_Church_Rock_Uranium_Mill
North East Church Rock Uranium Mine. Environmental Protection Agency. (2012). United Nuclear Corporation Uranium Mill.

History of Uranium Mining in the South West U.S. Region

In 1948, the United States experienced a “uranium boom” in which the federal United States Atomic Energy Commission had offered subsides to uranium that was mined in the U.S [5]. As a result, everything south of the Colorado Plateau became “sacrifice zones,” where energy companies would sacrifice human exposure, land degradation for the “greater good” of nuclear energy creation [6]. Uranium mining was promoted by the United States government until 1971 when the industry became privatized and continued as a profitable entity into the 1980’s [7].

Socio-Economic Opportunities and their Deadly Consequences

The opportunity for work on the Navajo Nation appealed to many people due to a lack of infrastructure and other amenities on reservations. Subsequently, laborers were exposed to various health issues. According to Brugge 2002, uranium miners were paid minimum wage or less for their labor. The exposure to toxic material at high concentrations resulted in health issues including cancer, most commonly leukemia, birth defects, miscarriages and more [8].

Environmental Racism

Environmental Racism is a big component as to why nuclear energy was mined off of the Navajo Nation. Environmental Racism describes a phenomenon in which racially marginalized communities experience more environmental dis-amenities at disproportional rates to those of more privileged demographics as a result of colonial racism in current legislation [9]. Beginning with early relationship between Native Americans and New England settlers, the United States government has done a poor job at recognizing indigenous rights and sovereignty to land [10]. Examples include, the early battles resulting in high numbers of indigenous deaths, a failure for the United States government to recognize treaties made with indigenous communities, the Trail of Tears and the subsequent relocation of indigenous tribes onto federally mandated reservations [11]. Though indigenous Native American populations are sovereign on these reservations, there are no laws that extend to protect the environment and human health, leaving native communities and their land to be vulnerable and exploited by corporations such as the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) thus resulting in modern day, Nuclear Colonialism [12].

Nuclear Colonialism

An example of Environmental Racism is the extent to which Nuclear Colonialism persisted at the Northeast Church Rock Mine on the Navajo Nation. Nuclear Colonialism is the occupation of another’s land for resource and labor exploitation for the generation of nuclear energy [13]. This form of colonialism first occurred when first the United States government,  followed by private corporations began to extract uranium from indigenous land for nuclear energy. Indigenous activists describe Nuclear Colonialism as the “stealing” of future health and preservation of land because of health risks due to exposure, land degradation and more adverse affects of uranium mining [14]. In the twentieth century, energy corporations such as UNC (United Nuclear Corporation) began to find a surplus of uranium on South West United States including the Navajo Nation. As a result of mining, high concentrations of toxic materials have been found on much of the Navajo nation, and cancer rates, particularly Leukemia, began to rise at an unprecedented rates among indigenous demographics [15].

Conclusion

The EPA has designated the abandoned North East Church Rock Mine as a Superfund site. Indigenous and environmental activists have given light to the marginalized indigenous communities who have suffered from early forms of colonialism and the categorization of  a  “sacrifice zone” which has exposed them to institutional Environmental Racism and Nuclear Colonialism. The EPA was able to identify the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) and have since fined the General Electric Company for its involvement by purchase of Untied Nuclear Corporation [16].

united_nuclear_corporation_epa_church_rock_map
North East Church Rock Uranium Mine Map. Environmental Protection Agency. (2003). United Nuclear Corporation EPA Church Rock Map.

References:

[1] Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Northeast Church Rock Mine. Retrieved from https://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/ViewByEPAID/NNN000906132#main

[2] Brugge, D. (2002). The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People. American Journal of Public Health, 92(9), 1410-1419.

[3] Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Northeast Church Rock Mine. Retrieved from https://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/ViewByEPAID/NNN000906132#main

[4] Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Northeast Church Rock Mine. Retrieved from https://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/ViewByEPAID/NNN000906132#main

[5] Brugge, D. (2002). The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People. American Journal of Public Health, 92(9), 1410-1419.

[6] Brugge, D. (2002). The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People. American Journal of Public Health, 92(9), 1410-1419.

[7] Brugge, D. (2002). The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People. American Journal of Public Health, 92(9), 1410-1419.

[8] Brugge, D. (2002). The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People. American Journal of Public Health, 92(9), 1410-1419.

[9] Bullard, R.D. (2011). Confronting environmental racism in the Twenty-First century. Deming, A.H. and Savoy, L.E. (Eds.) The colors of nature: Culture, identity, and the natural world. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

[10] Ostler, Jeffrey. (March 2015). Genocide and American Indian History. Oxford Research Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-3

[11] Ostler, Jeffrey. (March 2015). Genocide and American Indian History. Oxford Research Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-3

[12] Native American Forum on Nuclear Issues. (2016). Press conference. Retrieved from http://www.indigenousaction.org/indigenous-peoples-condemn-nuclear-colonialism-on-columbus-day/.

[13] HOME: Healing Ourselves and Mother Earth. (2012). Nuclear Colonialism. Retrieved from http://www.h-o-m-e.org/nuclear-colonialism.html

[14] Native American Forum on Nuclear Issues. (2016). Press conference. Retrieved from http://www.indigenousaction.org/indigenous-peoples-condemn-nuclear-colonialism-on-columbus-day/.

[15] Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Northeast Church Rock Mine. Retrieved from https://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/ViewByEPAID/NNN000906132#main

[16] Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Northeast Church Rock Mine. Retrieved from https://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/ViewByEPAID/NNN000906132#main

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