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30 Year Anniversary of Biggest Radioactive Accident in US History

July 15, 2009

GRANTS, N.M. - This week marks 30 years since the biggest radioactive accident you've probably never heard of - and it happened right here in New Mexico. The Church Rock Spill in the northwestern part of the state occurred on July 16, 1979, when an earthen tailings dam at the Church Rock Uranium Mill failed, dumping more than 90 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Rio Puerco. It was the largest radioactive spill in U.S. history and second in scale only to Chernobyl among nuclear accidents worldwide.

Nadine Padilla, who is Navajo from Grants, works with the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment. That group is organizing a day of events commemorating the anniversary on Thursday, and she says the consequences are well known to people from northwestern New Mexico.

"People that lived in those areas developed very rare forms of cancer; three of the rarest forms of cancer on a single person."

Padilla says it's important to remember the spill and its aftermath, especially with recent renewed interest in uranium mining and re-opening some of the mines in the area.

"They have a really devastating legacy and history here in New Mexico, and we just want to remind people of that."

The uranium industry says that technologies and safety standards have greatly improved over the last thirty years, using techniques like in-situ or leach mining, but recent spills have occurred at such operations in Texas. Padilla points out that no thorough studies have ever been done on the impacts to public health or on groundwater contamination from uranium mining in New Mexico.

Thursday's commemoration begins with a prayer walk along Highway 566 in the morning, followed by Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. reaffirming the Nation's ban on uranium mining at 11 a.m. In the evening from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., film showings and a panel discussion on uranium mining and the spill will be held at Calvin Hall on the University of New Mexico's Gallup campus.

Eric Mack, Public News Service - NM