On July 16th 1979, the largest by volume radioactive spill in U.S. history took place in the southeastern “checkerboard area” of the Navajo Nation (Diné Bikéyah) in northwestern New Mexico. Due to an earthen dam failure, an estimated ninety-four (~94) million gallons of radioactive and highly acidic uranium mill tailings slurry spilled into the Puerco Basin. This marked the beginning of the end for the uranium mining industry in “the checkerboard area” of the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico. The disastrous event occurred on the same day as an event thirty-four years prior that signified the beginning of the uranium mining industry: the Trinity Test of July 16, 1945. Although the history of the Church Rock mill spill remains underreported, and has not yet registered at a national scale of collective memory, it is memorialized annually by impacted communities and grassroots groups like the Red Water Pond Road Community Association (RWPRCA) and Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM). The Church Rock mill spill is an icon of the lapse in collective memory of the sacrifices made by Native Americans for U.S. national nuclear development, or "radioacitve nation-building" (Masco 2006), during the second half of the twentieth century.
This photo essay portrays the lapse in historical knowledge and national collective memory that made possible the current policy decisions and regulatory practices at so-called “national sacrifice zones,” which tend to reduce public participation in environmental health sciences and governance, and perpetuate the displacement and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. These photos are artifacts of an engaged and collaborative ethnographic project that accounts for the struggles of RWPRCA in registering their voices in an environmental impact statement (EIS) for cleaning up the greater Church Rock uranium mine and mill sites.
This project was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P42ES025589; and Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award NIGMS K12 GM088021. The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
Uranium Mining History. Poseter for the 10th Metals Toxicity and Carcinogenesis Conference.