America’s biggest nuclear accident (and cover up) – The Church Rock Uranium Mill Spill

I can imagine that most people reading this article will have heard of Three Mile Island, and they most certainly will have heard of Chernobyl. But how many of you have heard of America’s biggest nuclear accident, the Church Rock uranium mill spill? I imagine it’s going to be pretty low, if any.

All of which is interesting, because while it wasn’t as dramatic as Three Mile Island or as truly horrendous as Chernobyl, it appears to be washed out of the history books entirely. To the point that when the Japanese nuclear reactors leaked relatively small amounts of radiation, it never appeared on anybody’s “previously ran” list. Odd, given it remains to be America’s biggest nuclear accident and one that’s still affecting lives today.

The background

In the 1970’s Uranium was running at a premium, probably more then than now, as the need for weapons grade Uranium and the expanding nuclear power industry put strain on supply. United Nuclear Corporation responded by a large number of  Uranium mining facilities throughout New Mexico and beyond. The work was dangerous and expensive and highly profitable, a deadly combination that leads to cost cutting and safety breaches.

Part of the processing of the ore resulted in vast quantities of contaminated water, which was held on site in an artificial reservoir by a dam.

The United Nuclear Corporation Site near Church Rock in McKinley County, New Mexico
The United Nuclear Corporation Site near Church Rock in McKinley County, New Mexico

Precursors to a disaster

In December 1977 it was noted that the dam wall had started to crack in some places. The reality that the dam’s very structure was being compromised appears to have eluded staff, who merely sealed the cracks using bentonite in February 78. Bentonite is a fancy word for impure clay.

The newly patch dam wall must have looked the part as nobody seemed to be too concerned about the issue. The in October the cracks returned.

It should be noted that neither the facility owner, nor the State Engineer were formally notified of the episodes of cracking prior to the dam failure. Presumably because the operators regarded the cracks as you would cracks in a house.

In reality it would be later detailed in an Army Corp of Engineers report that the very foundation of the dam wall lay on mixed settlements. The load on the wall was being unevenly distributed, leading to the resulting cracks. These led to acidic fluid penetration, undermining the inner structure of the wall itself.

Essentially, it was ticking time bomb waiting to go off.

The Spill

On July 16, 1979 the strain on the dam became too much and the wall failed releasing 93 million gallons of highly contaminated effluent into the Puerco River. Spreading the 80 miles downstream through the town of Gallup, New Mexico and as far as Navajo County, Arizona. The flood backed up sewers, affected nearby aquifers and left stagnating, contaminated pools on the riverside. The levels of toxicity were 7000 times the permitted levels of drinking water.

What happens next should be held to greater scrutiny. But essentially UNC did the basic minimum it needed to do with regards informing the public and no mass public warnings were given.

As a result, despite being heavily contaminated, the people downstream of the toxic release carried on their daily lives. Playing in the toxic waters (receiving burns from the experience that would be passed of as “heat stroke”), drinking from aquifers and irrigating their land.

Then the live stock started to mysteriously die.

Eventually the State and Federal government started to truck in clean and safe water into the area as more people started to get sick.

The “cleanup”

It should be noted that in the initial clean-up, less than 3,500 barrels of contaminated material was collected. This represented just 1% of the spill. This also centred around the initial source of the leak and not downstream.

Understandably unhappy, the Navajo Nation appealed to the governor to request that the president declare the site a federal disaster area, but he refused, which reduced the aid available to people on the reservation. Ronald Reagan was President at the time, and despite the protocol, he could have interceded on behalf of the Navajo Nation. Instead, another tact was taken. One of absolute silence.


By 1981, just 3 years later, the water trucks stopped. The result being that farmers had little or no choice but to use local, and still highly contaminated, water.

Church Rock itself  closed in 1982 as a result in the declining uranium market.

By 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency had put the Church Rock site on it’s National Priorities List of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund investigations and clean up efforts, in recognition that radionuclides and chemical constituents were recognized as entering local ground water.

But this didn’t help nor take into account the people living downstream who were showing the signs of radiation exposure. Childhood cancers had increased sharply and the Navajo people themselves exhibiting significantly higher rates than the national average. Cancers that were generally associated with uranium mine workers.

Finally in 1994 the EPA extended its efforts with a study of all known uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.

To this date no ongoing epidemiological studies have been done at Church Rock.


Doug Brugge, Jamie L. deLemos, and Cat Bui summed it up pretty well in their 2007 “American Journal of Public Health” article.

They suggested the lack of peer-reviewed studies of health effects of the accident may be related to such factors as it occurring in an “early stage in the nuclear cycle” which was dependent on a large (and cheap) labour force and that it happened in a “low-income, rural, American Indian communities”.

In other words, because a scandal would have put cheap labour of working in the mines and that the victims were rural and poor, nobody cared.

Media coverage… WHAT COVERAGE

Effective control of the mass media and news outlets resulted in the story not spreading, of if it did, it was minor.

This Google News search returns just 5 contemporary stories and all of them are “local papers”. What you should really notice is that lack of hits from the likes of the;

  • New York Times
  • LA Times
  • Washington Post
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Houston Chronicle

What does THAT tell you?


  1. Well, lot of thanks for this article.
    There is just now ongoint a bit similar prosess in Finland where huge ponds of toxic metallic waters with tens of thousands kg:s uranium etc has leaked to nature.
    I just commented the situation in our facebook event and it can be replaced also here.
    More information about Finnish case Talvivaara can be found and

    Our movement would like to invite you or somebody else to tell to Finnish audience these experiments.

    Hannu Hyvönen
    activist of Stop Talvivaara – peoples movement for rivers and lakes
    This is so sad and almost funny. Our National Institute of Health and Wellfare is announcing that there was not mercury in the leaked water. But does not mention that there was more than ten thousands of kilograms liquid uranium flowing down into the rivers and lakes. And other heavymetals were also big amounts: 80 000 kg Ni, 20 000 kg Zn and besides these also about 100 000 000 kg sulfates. In two weeks the mine leaked amounts they could legally release during 50 years period!

    But this is the situation now in Finland. The media has been quided to avoid any information which could cause worry or anger. This is the way they try to prevent the most serious effects, “mental effect”, to happen.

    The environmental crime and large scale uranium and heavy metall accident has happened and whole media is now in sleep. Nobody is reporting what is the situation, what are the plans to clean about 200 hectars heavily polluted soil and how to
    clean bottoms of the lakes and rivers neaby. Even information about the risks to eat fish or use the water are limited.

    Just wondering how does this happen in democracy as Finland.

    Well, I think that the other reason for silencing is the worry about Talvivaara company itself. With open media athmosphere there would be a big risk that the value of this company would collapse in finance markets.

    However this media silence has now continued several weeks. Only thiskind of no worry- news are released.

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