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Navajo leaders, community members oppose nuclear waste transport near reservation

ChurchRock-EPA.jpeg
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
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The Northeast Church Rock Mine near Gallup, N.M., was the site of the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history in 1979.

Navajo Nation leaders and local community members are opposing a plan by the federal government to transport nuclear waste near homes. It’s part of an attempt to clean up one of the most notorious abandoned uranium mines in the region. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is proposing a transfer of decades-old nuclear waste from the Northeast Church Rock abandoned mine near Gallup, N.M., to a nearby mill. But Navajo Nation officials say the plan would bring the waste too close to the reservation and local communities.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez and the tribe’s Environmental Protection Agency Executive Director Valinda Shirley recently held a meeting with residents of the Red Water Pond Road community. They want a second public comment period for the plan and for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take the waste far from tribal lands.

The community is still reeling from the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, which occurred in the area. In 1979 a tailings disposal pond breached its dam sending almost a 100 million gallons of nuclear waste into the Puerco River and onto the Navajo Nation. It contaminated groundwater and left the river unusable. The EPA eventually declared the area a superfund site.

Communities throughout the Navajo Nation have suffered decades of radiation exposure and sickness as the result of more than 520 abandoned uranium mines leftover from the Cold War.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.