Water-Pollution Nation

Today the immediate concern seems to be algae bloom in rivers and lakes, which can turn into "red tides" in the Gulf of Mexico and can kill animals. Thirty-five years ago in the Merced County it was the water pollution at the US Fish & Wildlife Kesterson Wildlife Refuge causing the deaths and deformations of newborn birds, amphibians and humans, and causing cancer. Although this is happening from Vermont to California, the cause is the same, runoff from agricultural fields. And rather than adjust, even comply with existing environmental regulations, organized agribusiness chooses to fund huge lobbying campaigns and yes-men candidates for office to preserve what its seems as its sacred American right to go right on polluting. Some of its brilliant slogans include, but are not limited to: "We farm. You eat." "Farmers are the real stewards of the environment;" "SB1. Fix it or nix it."-- blj

The deadly cycle has already been completed at Central California’s Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, where birds produce grotesquely deformed offspring. Kesterson became the “modern-day Silent Spring,” sounding the alarm about the health of the refuge system just as Rachel Carson’s 1961 book dramatized the devastation to wildlife from pesticides and herbicides, said Bill Reffalt, a refuge specialist for the Wilderness Society.

“Kesterson tipped the scale and made the Fish and Wildlife Service realize we have a problem,” said Reffalt, a former refuge administrator for the service. “They just haven’t uncovered the full extent of it yet.”

Selenium Can Kill

Kesterson’s marshes were fed by agricultural drain water filled with heavy metals, including selenium, a naturally occurring element that at low levels is harmless and even essential to human health but at higher concentrations is capable of killing and causing mutations.

Five years ago, abnormally high levels of selenium were found in mosquito fish at Kesterson. Two years later, the element was detected in birds. Several species of birds produced deformed offspring, including birds without eyes or wings or feet or with organs protruding through their tissues.

California health officials in 1984 warned the public not to eat ducks from Kesterson and later issued an advisory to restrict consumption of ducks from a nearby refuge. Six months ago, the contaminants were found in small rodents at Kesterson. Wildlife service officials now fear the endangered kit fox may be the next victim…– Dolan, Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1986

 

 

 

9-4-19

Bloombergenvironment.com

Dog Deaths Raise Algal Bloom Alarm as States Report More Toxins

By Alex Ebert and Stephen Joyce

https://news.bloombergenvironment.com/environment-and-energy/dog-deaths-...

Feds, states warn toxic blooms to increase with warmer climate, agriculture runoff

State responses to blue-green algae vary, leading to calls for increased monitoring

A high-profile series of dog deaths has awakened the public to the growing problem of toxic algal blooms, spurred by rising temperatures and pollution.

The blooms are emerging as a national, not just regional, concern, according to preliminary data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through July. Samples taken from New Jersey to California, and from Texas to Washington state, all show evidence of toxins given off by the blooms.

Since 2018, when the EPA started collecting the latest batch of data, algal blooms have been documented near the intakes of water treatment plants at least 130 times.

Algae occurs naturally in bodies of water across all U.S. states, with fetid blooms on ponds, lakes, and streams usually spiking each August. But the putrid, mucky overgrowth of algae in water can release toxins that sicken and kill humans and animals. These harmful blooms thrive in hotter temperatures and with exposure to nutrients used in farming, such as phosphorus.

In May, the U.S. EPA came out with recommended safety levels for state action regarding two algal-bloom produced toxins in recreational water. Those recommendations followed federal drinking water health advisories for those toxins issued in 2015, after a 2014 drinking water ban in Toledo, Ohio, sparked by a massive bloom in western Lake Erie.

While scientists have monitored harmful algal blooms and their toxins for decades, state regulators are becoming increasingly aware of their harms due to recent pet deaths. Reports of dogs dying in North Carolina in August drew national headlines, and eight additional dogs died in Michigan the same month from possible exposure to algae-linked bacteria after the canines took a dip into ponds, streams, or lakes.

“And dogs are so silly,” Susan Wilde, associate professor of aquatic science at the University of Georgia, told Bloomberg Environment. “Not only do they swim in that water and don’t give a rip, they will even eat the scum that accumulates.”

Dogs aren’t the only creatures at risk: People have gotten sick from possible toxins in seafood, and in the Southeast in 2015, there were reports of dozens of bald eagles dying due to links to toxic blue-green algae.

Lack of Federal Response

Rising temperatures and more rainfall linked to climate change will likely cause more algal blooms in the future, especially in fresh water, Shelly Tomlinson, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, said in an interview.

Marc Suddleson, a program manager in that same NOAA center, also said that blooms across the world are lasting longer, getting more toxic, and appearing earlier and later in the year. And species of toxin-releasing bacteria are popping up in new locations. Half a dozen state environment regulators contacted by Bloomberg Environment repeated the same idea.

But the issue hasn’t garnered significant national federal intervention beyond research and advisories to state water regulators. Congress authorized funding, most recently last December, to spur federal research of algal blooms. And the EPA has given out $7.5 million in grants to help farmers improve water quality, as well as $1.2 million to implement state plans to reduce nutrient discharges into the Mississippi River.

An effective organization dealing with the issue across states is the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, a state-led coalition that includes members from all 50 states, according to Pam Anderson, a manager at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

An EPA spokeswoman pointed out that states are the main authority for setting water quality standards and effluent limits. EPA data indicates 35 states have implemented guidelines for algal bloom bacteria and toxins in recreational waterways. But the EPA is only aware of two states—Ohio and Oregon—that have used EPA guidelines to develop drinking water standards for algal bloom bacteria, she said.

Varied State Response

While some states have closely monitored and tracked toxins for years, others are just beginning to build out more robust responses.

California is on the more passive side of the spectrum. California’s rivers, lakes, ponds, creeks, and other watersheds are prone to harmful algal bloom outbreaks due to the state’s warm climate, reduced water supplies from drought, and runoff from agricultural and municipal operations. But America’s most populous state lacks a statewide routine monitoring program, instead issuing guidance on health effects and relying on voluntary reports of a specific type of bloom from water agencies, tribal groups, nonprofits, and municipalities. Those reports and advisories are posted online at a statewide monitoring and alert portal, which launched in 2016.

This Labor Day, as in the two prior, regional water board scientists also collected samples at about 40 of the state’s most visited lake’s and streams with a history of blooms.

In 2018, the California State Water Resources Control Board received 190 bloom reports, and the California Department of Public Health reported 19 cases—involving eight people, four dogs, and seven fish—of suspected, probable, or confirmed incidents of sickness linked to harmful algal blooms to the Centers for Disease Control.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ohio, which has monitored blooms closely since 2010, and ramped up water testing following massive toxic algal blooms that led to drinking water shutdowns in the Toledo area in 2013 and 2014. Dina Pierce, an Ohio EPA spokeswoman, said in an email that the state is seeing “an average summer,” with water systems reporting that algal bloom-related toxins appeared in 148 pre-treated water samples this year.

Some state regulators said it was difficult to tell whether the problem is getting worse—or if monitoring and reporting is simply getting more comprehensive. The public often plays a large role by calling regulators and sending in pictures of blooms. Some states also allow citizens to alert regulators online, as through a new reporting system New York launched this year.

More news coverage can also trigger increased citizen reports. Amanda McQuaid, New Hampshire’s beach coordinator and head of the state’s algae monitoring program, said the state saw a spike in calls about possible algal blooms following a report of two dogs dying in neighboring Vermont in June. The Virginia Department of Health has also responded to a larger number of algal blooms this year than in past years, due in part to increased incidents, greater awareness, and ease of reporting, Lorrie Andrew-Spear, department spokeswoman, said in an interview.

Due to expansive territory and limited resources, state regulators often rely on volunteers to help with monitoring. About 1,500 Vermont volunteers help monitor water at Lake Champlain, where many primary beaches are closed each summer and fishing is banned due to algal blooms. The problem on the lake got so bad, the U.S. EPA had to intervene in 2016 to force the state to set limits for pollutants and implement other practices.

Dueling Agriculture and Tourism Economies

Algal blooms are increasingly putting state regulators in a bind as they search for ways to minimize the slime’s impact on tourism but not crack down on a farming industry reeling from floods, trade conflicts, and climate change.

Due to heavy rains this spring, immense amounts of manure and phosphorus runoff from Midwest farms entered the Mississippi River and exited into the Gulf of Mexico, for the first time leading to algal blooms floating onto the Gulf coast shorelines of Alabama and Mississippi.

Those southern shores experienced what is a near-annual issue in Lake Erie, where agricultural runoff spurs massive blooms that Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan have pledged to fight. An August report from a consulting group hired by Ohio local governments along Lake Erie estimates that if the states meet their 40% phosphorus reduction target, it would boost the $1.7 billion tourism and sport fishing industry by up to $437 million, and could avoid regional property value losses of $1 billion.

Blooms are also an annual occurrence on the sunny beaches of Florida, which sees a “red tide” of algae that releases toxins. Environmentalists blame the growth of these blooms on polluted inland waters pouring into the ocean.

“The problem of algal blooms is multi-faceted and complicated, but you better get to work on it,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis chair, said in an interview. “Or else you’re going to wreck the economy of Florida, which relies on tourism, clean water, and fishing.”

But in the push-and-pull between tourism and agriculture, legislatures tend to take only tentative steps toward regulation. The $33 billion Ohio agriculture and food production economy dwarfs the tourism industry and is the state’s largest economic driver, employing more than 400,000 people, according to 2015 Ohio Farm Bureau statistics.

Instead, states are pumping more money into better water management practices and grants for farmers to combat the blooms. In July, Ohio passed a budget bill with $172 million for clean water grants, including money to decrease runoff from farms through use of barriers, wetlands, and nutrient management. And New York last year appropriated $82 million for bloom abatement projects and $11 million for bloom monitoring.

Increasing regulations on farmers would be a tough sell for Midwest states already staggering from impacts of the U.S.-China trade war and unusually brutal flooding that destroyed crops this year. Ohio legislators aren’t alone in that concern, according to Deanna White, state director for Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund of Minnesota.

“Regulating agriculture is the third rail of politics in Minnesota, particularly with the farm economy being in a sort of free-fall due to the trade policies of the Trump administration,” she said in an interview.

—With assistance from David Schultz, Emily C. Dooley, Keshia Clukey, Andrew Ballard, and Adrianne Appel.

 

7-6-86

Los Angeles Times

Wildlife at Risk : Pollution Endangers U.S. Refuges

By MAURA DOLAN

https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-07-06-mn-22987-story.html

WASHINGTON — 

In mid-state New York, a muddy creek meanders through a hazardous dump on its way to a national wildlife refuge, where it provides the main source of water for eagles, herons and migratory birds.

In Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley, pesticides sprayed on farmlands from the air drift over a refuge for birds. In 1983, several Franklin’s gulls were found dead on the refuge. They had eaten cicadas coated with pesticide.

At a southern Illinois refuge, birds dust their wings in dirt contaminated with toxic PCBs and mate in a heavily wooded area believed to be sprinkled with hazardous wastes.

Established in Early 1900s

Many of the nation’s refuges, established in the early 1900s to conserve dwindling wildlife, now face industrial, agricultural and municipal pollution that threaten the very creatures they are designed to attract and protect.

At stake are more than 70 species that are struggling back from the brink of extinction on refuge lands. Migratory birds, the historic beneficiary of the refuge system, are dropping ominously in population, their once wide-open habitat replaced by “waterfowl ghettos.”

The federal government, limited by inexperience and budget constraints, is scrambling to assess the scope and seriousness of the contamination before it causes widespread death, deformities or inability to reproduce. Systematic monitoring has yet to be done, and refuge managers sometimes wait more than a year for overburdened government laboratories to analyze the tissues of their dead wildlife.

The ultimate cost of cleaning the refuges could be many millions of dollars. But the cost of not cleaning them could be incalculable--the loss of scores of species, from the tiny swallowtail butterfly in Florida to the endangered kit fox in California.

 

434 Refuges

Larger in total size than the national parks, the 90-million-acre refuge system is required to protect 34 species of fish, 147 varieties of mammals and 459 kinds of birds in addition to various insects and reptiles. The 434 refuges are run by professional wildlife managers and biologists who are charged not only with ensuring a healthy habitat for the wildlife but, at some, with managing recreational activities that include boating and hunting.

“We have enough refuges to maintain remnants of the (wildlife) population but not near enough to maintain birds or wildlife like we have known them historically,” said Robert Smith, a migratory bird branch chief at the U.S. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. “I see refuges becoming more and more like natural museums--little remnants of the past. They should be managed that way and kept clean.”

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey earlier this year found that 85 of the refuges are threatened by contaminants. At Stillwater National Wildlife Management Area in Nevada, for example, mercury levels in fish have been found at up to four times the maximum suggested for human consumption. Bird and fish die-offs are not uncommon. In 1983, workers counted 50,000 dead ducks on the grounds.

But at most of the troubled refuges, there is little or no evidence of widespread harm--at least not so far. Rather, there are red flags: heavy metals or industrial compounds in the soil or water. The poisons move silently up the food chain, from plants to insects to fish and, ultimately, to birds and mammals.

The deadly cycle has already been completed at Central California’s Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, where birds produce grotesquely deformed offspring. Kesterson became the “modern-day Silent Spring,” sounding the alarm about the health of the refuge system just as Rachel Carson’s 1961 book dramatized the devastation to wildlife from pesticides and herbicides, said Bill Reffalt, a refuge specialist for the Wilderness Society.

“Kesterson tipped the scale and made the Fish and Wildlife Service realize we have a problem,” said Reffalt, a former refuge administrator for the service. “They just haven’t uncovered the full extent of it yet.”

Selenium Can Kill

Kesterson’s marshes were fed by agricultural drain water filled with heavy metals, including selenium, a naturally occurring element that at low levels is harmless and even essential to human health but at higher concentrations is capable of killing and causing mutations.

Five years ago, abnormally high levels of selenium were found in mosquito fish at Kesterson. Two years later, the element was detected in birds. Several species of birds produced deformed offspring, including birds without eyes or wings or feet or with organs protruding through their tissues.

California health officials in 1984 warned the public not to eat ducks from Kesterson and later issued an advisory to restrict consumption of ducks from a nearby refuge. Six months ago, the contaminants were found in small rodents at Kesterson. Wildlife service officials now fear the endangered kit fox may be the next victim.

Elevated levels of selenium have now been documented near or within 20 other national refuges, including Stillwater, where the element was found in dead birds.

Although about 80% of the nation’s refuges are designed to protect birds, the migratory waterfowl population plummeted last fall to a record low since aerial counting began 31 years ago. Wildlife managers estimated the population had dipped to 62 million, down from more than 100 million birds in the 1950s. Drought in the Canadian prairie region and the northern United States is considered a prime culprit.

“The only thing we know is that waterfowl populations are going down at a rate that concerns everybody,” said Dr. Milton Friend, director of the National Wildlife Health Laboratory in Madison, Wis. “We certainly know that habitat loss has been very great in this country and many people believe that loss is a primary reason for the decline. But you’re talking about a very complicated biological system.”

Scientists suspect that contaminants weaken the birds, make them more susceptible to disease and reduce their ability to reproduce. Friend said evidence from Europe, Africa and Japan shows that avian diseases have first occurred after waste-water discharges into marshes. And in the Sacramento Valley, avian botulism breaks out when irrigation water is used for raising the level of the marsh.

‘Could Lose 100,000'

“It’s not unusual to see a die-off with 1,000 birds dying a day and 25,000 to 50,000 dying before it ends,” Friend said. “You could lose 100,000 birds in a month.”

Friend, who studied the effects of sublethal amounts of industrial compounds and pesticides in mallard ducks, found “rather dramatic results” by comparing the mortality of birds exposed both to the chemicals and a virus with birds exposed only to the virus. Although the birds exposed to the chemicals did not become outwardly sick, nearly half of them died a month later when they were exposed to a virus, Friend said. Only about 6% of the birds exposed only to the virus died.

Birds that move from one refuge to another carry the diseases with them. Friend noted that California’s Central Valley has lost 90% of its wetlands but still must accommodate millions of migratory birds that winter there. The birds themselves then foul their own crowded environment.

‘Waterfowl Ghettos’

“What you begin to get are waterfowl ghettos,” Friend said.

Some refuges established in pristine, remote areas must now cope with encroaching development and contamination of nearby water sources. Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in central New York state is bisected by Interstate 90, a major thoroughfare for tankers carrying chemicals, oil and wastes. Eight miles upstream is an operating landfill and a dump so polluted that it is on the federal Superfund list for cleanup.

Black Brook, the main water supply for the refuge, runs between the dumps before it empties into Montezuma. In 1979, refuge biologists noted that it emptied into the refuge directly under a tower used at the time to release young bald eagles into the wild.

Sediment Tested

Tests of sediment on the creek’s bottom showed elevated levels of copper, mercury, iron, selenium, chromium, nickel and zinc. Samples from the dump itself revealed the presence of such pesticides as DDT, which causes birds to lay eggs whose shells are so fragile that they break during nesting.

“The threat was imminent then,” said Grady E. Hocutt, the refuge manager. So he joined state environmental officials in devising requirements to contain the wastes and prevent their leaching into the brook. He also helped negotiate conditions for future dumping.

During a recent visit, hundreds of gray and white screaming gulls feasted on the garbage as it was dumped from trucks. Plastic trash bags clung to the branches of trees. A sour odor pervaded some spots. “The potential is here for problems,” Hocutt said.

The refuge system was founded by President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter, who established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida in 1903 to protect egrets, herons and other nesting birds that were being killed in large numbers so that their plumes could be used in women’s hats.

Drought, hunting and the drainage and development of wetlands contributed to the demise of many animals at the turn of the century. The bison had almost disappeared by 1895, and antelope and elk were dwindling in number. By 1914, the passenger pigeon no longer existed.

Over the following decades, more and more refuges were established to protect these animals. But often they were created on land “that nobody else wanted,” said Jim Gillett, chief of refuge management in Washington.

Manipulated Wastelands

Wildlife managers manipulated wastelands into wildlife oases by planting grasslands to provide nesting cover for waterfowl, building dikes to create shallow marshes and harvesting crops to feed and attract the animals. Wildlife soon gravitated to these spots, returning year after year in greater numbers.

But despite their new look, many refuges bear the legacy of their past. Some are former industrial or military sites whose past activities include the making or dumping of dangerous materials. Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois, described by one environmentalist as a “time bomb about to go off,” was used to make industrial chemicals and military explosives before the Fish and Wildlife Service took over the land after World War II.

‘Area Contaminated’

Surrounding one scenic setting, an eight-foot-high chain-link fence topped by barbed wire is posted with a sign that warns, “Area Contaminated by Industrial Chemicals.” Behind the fence, the ground is littered with rusted batteries and broken glass. Male bobwhite quails call to each other in their two-syllable whistles to claim the territory as their own; orioles peer out from the tree branches. On the ground, plastic garbage cans of soil samples await laboratory analysis.

The land is saturated with polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs. The industrial compound, which accumulates in fatty tissues, has also been discovered in one of the lakes. The fish, which bald eagles eat, have been found with the poison in their tissues. About two acres of the 43,550-acre refuge is now a Superfund site.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the section of the Interior Department that operates the refuges, first uncovered many of their troubles in a survey in 1981 and 1982. But the survey results coincided with former Interior Secretary James G. Watt’s drive to promote money-making activities at refuges. The study, which described as threats some of the refuge activities that Watt was promoting, was eventually made public in 1983.

‘Action Plans’

The Fish and Wildlife Service has now asked the 85 refuges threatened by contamination to submit “action plans” for further monitoring, evaluation or cleanup. Officials hope to charge the polluters the cost. But in many cases, the polluter is the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which administers irrigation projects, and the bureau, also part of the Interior Department, is considered to wield more clout within the department than the wildlife service.

Despite budgetary pressures, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to increase spending for studying contamination from $15.5 million this year to $17.9 million in 1987. An additional $1 million has been earmarked this year for a task force established by Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel to study pollution from agricultural runoff at 10 refuges and nine other Interior Department sites.

The $2.4-million hike for refuge-contaminant evaluation would allow a “little bit of work” next year on the 38 most threatened refuges, said Robert Shallenberger, chief of resource management in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s refuge division. “But it really depends on how far the money goes.”

Not Always Problem

Hodel noted that some of the threats identified by the Fish and Wildlife Service may never have an impact. “Not every threat is a problem,” he said.

But a staff member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles the Interior Department’s budget said the proposed $2.4-million increase for contaminants represents only half of what is needed. He said Congress may provide the rest.

“The (wildlife) service has taken the first step,” said the staff member. “But it’s interesting that the budget request doesn’t include any money for actual cleanup, and that some of these sites have been identified for a long time as having contaminants.”

Up to $150 Million

For Kesterson alone, estimates of cleanup costs range all the way from $2 million to $150 million.

The 1986 survey by the Fish and Wildlife Service divided the troubled refuges into three categories: nine where evidence indicated the need for corrective action; 29 where there was direct evidence of contamination but little was known about its dimensions, and the rest where there was indirect evidence of contamination on or near the refuge.

The refuges in the first category include one in Seal Beach, Calif., that is closed to the public because it sits inside the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. A survey found that contaminants had been dumped on the 1,100-acre site before the military turned it over to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1972, and no harm to wildlife has been documented. If further studies find persisting contamination, the Defense Department would have to pay for the cleanup.

The refuge, home to at least four endangered species, is surrounded by oil derricks, a Navy pistol range, dozens of bunkers and magazines where explosives are stored. On a recent day, a visit to the nesting ground of an endangered bird had to be called off because the Navy was conducting shooting practice.

In Desert’s Midst

Federal officials placed Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, located about 120 miles east of San Diego, in the second category of refuges to be evaluated. Situated at the edge of a startlingly blue sea in the midst of the desert, the refuge is home to wintering waterfowl with elevated levels of selenium, nickel, arsenic and lead.

Federal and state officials attribute the pollution to agricultural drain water and two rivers filled with pesticides, industrial wastes and municipal sewage that feed into the sea. State health authorities earlier this year warned the public to limit consumption of fish from the sea and advised children and women of childbearing years to avoid it altogether.

Bill Henry, a biologist at the refuge, is determined to preserve the endangered creatures, not just to protect the public from them. “To me, wildlife is like art,” he said. “Each species is just another little chink in the chain of life and, without them, life would be pretty mundane.”

 

 

 

8-12-19

Vice.com

Church Rock, America’s Forgotten Nuclear Disaster, Is Still Poisoning Navajo Lands 40 Years Later

Residents say they've been ignored even as they struggle with contaminated water and worry about having children.

by Samuel Gilbert; photos by Ramsay de Give

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ne8w4x/church-rock-americas-forgotten...

 

Early in the summer of 1979, Larry King, an underground surveyor at the United Nuclear Corporation's Church Rock Uranium mine in New Mexico, began noticing something unusual when looking at the south side of the tailings dam. That massive earthen wall was responsible for holding back thousands of tons of toxic water and waste produced by the mine and the nearby mill that extracted uranium from raw ore. And as King saw, there were "fist-sized cracks" developing in that wall. He measured them, reported them to his supervisors, and didn't think anything more of it.

A few weeks later, at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1979, the dam failed, releasing 1,100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco and through Navajo lands, a toxic flood that had devastating consequences on the surrounding area.

"The water, filled with acids from the milling process, twisted a metal culvert in the Puerco," according to Judy Pasternak's book Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos. "Sheep keeled over and died, and crops curdled along the banks. The surge of radiation was detected as far away as Sanders, Arizona, fifty miles downstream." According to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report, radioactivity levels in the Puerco near the breached dam were 7,000 times that of what is allowed in drinking water.

The heavily contaminated water flowed over the river banks, creating radioactive pools. "There were children up and down the river playing in those stagnant pools, and they were deadly poisonous," Jorge Winterer, a doctor with Indian Health Service in Gallup, New Mexico, said after the spill.

Earlier this year, standing in his yard next to an old Chevy, King pointed in the direction of the now dry Rio Puerco. "It came right through there," said King. The unleashed river of waste had flowed through his family's land just a half-mile from his house. "I remember the terrible odor and the yellowish color of the water." He recalls seeing an elderly woman who had burned her feet crossing the Puerco while watering her sheep that day.

King still lives on the family land, two miles downstream of the rebuilt dam in the Church Rock chapter of the Navajo Nation. His home is surrounded by a beautiful, unforgiving landscape of red rock cliffs, a scattering of Navajo residences and, if you look closely, fencelines with KEEP OUT signs marking the numerous abandoned uranium sites.

Forty years later, the Church Rock spill remains the largest single largest accidental release of radioactivity in U.S. history, worse in terms of total radiation than that of the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and second in world history only to the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, both of which have loomed much larger in the cultural imagination. The effects of the spill have lingered for an entire generation: In 2007, the Church Rock Uranium Mining Project found widespread contamination of drinking water sources in the Church Rock area.

Navajo residents say they have not been given the attention given to other victims of nuclear accidents, even as they remain under the catastrophe's long shadow, dealing with poisoned livestock and ongoing health problems amid other aftereffects. "We have never been a priority," said King. "Forty years after the spill and nothing has been done."

"Our generation is afraid of having children," said Faith Baldwin, who grew up on the Navajo nation surrounded by abandoned uranium mines. "Cancer runs in our family but it shouldn't. Cancer, diabetes were nonexistent in Navajo rez."

Larry King stands on his property next to his truck

During the Cold War, Navajo lands provided much of the raw material for the burgeoning nuclear industry. From 1944 to 1986 some 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from mines, but as demand for uranium decreased the mines closed, leaving over a thousand contaminated sites, few of which have been cleaned up.

The Church Rock Chapter has some 20 such contaminated uranium sites, including the mine where King worked. Navajo workers at these places were often poorly paid, underprotected, and uninformed about the danger of radiation exposure. And even before the spill, King said, UNC would routinely pump uranium-contaminated water from the mine into the Puerco, turning the seasonal wash into a toxic "man-made stream." According to a 1994 report by the U.S. Geological Survey on levels of radioactive elements in the Rio Puerco and Little Colorado River basins, "at least 300 times more uranium and 6 times more total gross alpha activity were released by day-to-day pumping from the underground mines than was released by the spill."

As a child King remembers playing in the dry Puerco wash, its banks often coated with a "yellowish slime." And ranchers used the Puerco to water their livestock.

A road to a Superfund site in New Mexico blocked by a 'KEEP OUT' sign.

Residents couldn't have known that the Church Rock dam was at risk of rupturing, but there's evidence that the United Nuclear Corporation did. King wasn't the first to notice cracks in the dam: An Army Corps of Engineers report would later find that UNC was aware of the cracks as early as 1977, two years before the breach. That report concluded that UNC failed to properly reinforce the tailings dam, ignored advice from its own engineering consultant that might have prevented the coming disaster, and did not report the cracks to regulators.

"The company was remiss in not heading the problem off," said Chris Shuey, director of the Uranium Impact Assessment Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, an organization providing information to the public about the impacts of energy development and resource extraction. Shuey said that UNC failed to repair cracks in the dam while simultaneously overfilling the uranium mill's toxic tailing ponds that were being held back by that cracking wall.

The cleanup process after the spill was also lacking. Only 1 percent of solid radioactive waste was removed, according to Paul Robinson, the research director at the Southwest Research and Information Center, and no compensation for the nearby residents was provided. In contrast, those affected by the Three Mile Island disaster were paid thanks to the company that operated that plant and its insurers.

"Governments took meaningful measures to deal with the Three Mile Island accident," said Eric Jantz, a lawyer from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, "while neither the federal nor New Mexico governments have taken any steps to remediate the Church Rock spill even after 40 years."

As time went on, the impacts of uranium exposure became more evident to residents. King watched as his former mine coworkers died early deaths. Community members complained of health problems that prior to the entrance of the uranium industry were foreign: kidney disease, bone cancer, and lung cancer afflicting non-smokers.

According to King, the only warnings about radioactivity were a few signs telling residents not to water their livestock in the wash. UNC's cleanup efforts consisted of hiring some temporary workers to shovel waste from the wash into five-gallon buckets and haul it away, according to Colleen Keane, who made a documentary about the aftermath of the spill called The River That Harms.

In the early 90s, King joined the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM), a grassroots organization fighting against new uranium projects and trying to mitigate the negative impacts of mining operations. Through that work, King began hearing troubling stories from nearby Red Water Pond Road, a small community sandwiched between three uranium sites where residents "unwittingly used water from contaminated wells to drink, bathe, and hydrate their livestock," according to a 2017 Reveal article.

"Their sheep were born hairless... like baby rats," said King. There were also the stories of butchered animals whose insides had turned a sickly yellow. A few years back, one of King's neighbors killed a sheep. Instead of white, the stomach fat was yellow, "more yellow than those happy faces," said King, pointing to a stuffed smiley face pinned above his couch. "They got concerned and decided to butcher another one. Pretty soon there was a pile of carcasses, all the same... They burned the whole thing."

A rock face near Church Rock

The health impacts of the spill on residents remain poorly understood, with only a few authoritative heath studies having been conducted.

One of the few government studies that came out after the spill did limited testing on both residents (six in total) and livestock. The resulting 1983 report from the New Mexico government, based on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tests, concluded that Rio Puerco water "may be hazardous if used over several years as the primary source of drinking water, livestock water or irrigation water." The report goes on to state that "the severity of these hazards is not well known at the time."

But since then, it's become more obvious that the spill has had long-lasting and serious effects. In 2015, Tommy Rock, a doctoral student of earth science, uncovered uranium contamination in Rio Puerco water in Sanders, a town in eastern Arizona, by looking at tests stretching back to 2003. "The Church rock spill was the single most likely cause," he said. "For decades people were unknowingly drinking poisoned tap water." The water company did not report the contamination to residents, and after Rock's findings a new company took over operations and is drawing on a different well.

For many residents, the spill has come to embody the broader toxic legacy of the uranium industry on the indigenous lands of the West. According to the EPA, there are over 500 abandoned uranium mines, mill sites, and waste piles on Navajo Nation land that continue to contaminate water, soil, livestock and housing.

"The Church Rock spill symbolizes the governmental and societal indifference to the impacts of uranium development on Indigenous lands," said Jantz. "The Church Rock spill is the third largest nuclear accident after Fukushima and Chernobyl, and the largest in the US in terms of radiation released, but nobody knows about it."

"Three Mile Island had more coverage and people were compensated right away," said King. "I always say we don't get the same attention because we live in impoverished native community… We live in a sacrifice zone."

 

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