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The 20-Year Wait: Church Rock Chapter Emerges as Leader in Community-based Research

For parts of four decades between 1952 and 1986, residents of Church Rock Chapter of the Navajo Nation lived with uranium mining. In the 20 years since the last mine shut off its underground pumps, stopping all mine water discharges to local streams, questions have lingered in the minds of community members and tribal officials about the extent of environmental impacts from past mining and milling operations. Some residents are convinced that uranium mining caused the deaths and illnesses of family members. But from a medical and epidemiological perspective, the human health consequences of living in mining-impacted areas remain a mystery because not a single population health study has ever been conducted in the Church Rock area, despite its mining history.

Over the past few years, though, all of that has begun to change. Church Rock Chapter has emerged as a leader in advocating for and participating in community-based research (CBR) to address environmental health concerns. In 2003, the Chapter received the first of two private foundation grants to begin a systematic assessment of radiation levels in residential areas near, and in some cases, next to, abandoned mines, ore haulage routes, and a dismantled uranium mill and mill tailings facility that has been a federal Superfund site since 1983. The results of that assessment were instrumental in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) recent decision to use Superfund authority to enforce cleanup of one of the largest abandoned mines in the area. And the assessment has helped demonstrate that elevated radiation levels along a heavily traveled state highway and on adjacent Navajo grazing lands were attributable to releases of contaminants from another abandoned uranium mine site that is also the location of a proposed uranium in situ leach (ISL) mine.

This year, the Chapter is moving forward with plans to monitor dust levels in two residential areas near abandoned mines. Church Rock is also participating in the DiNEH (Diné Network for Environmental Health) Project, the first Navajo-directed, multi-community study ever conducted on the Navajo Nation to examine the possible relationship between chronic ingestion of uranium in water sources and development of kidney disease. And earlier this year, Navajo-speaking residents of Church Rock made digital video statements of their families’ historic and current uses of lands in the Chapter in support of the Navajo Nation’s position that the entirety of Church Rock Chapter is “Indian Country” for purposes of regulating proposed ISL mining under authority of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

Harry Livingston provides oral testimony to EPA.

Church Rock’s recent experience with environmental assessments, new health studies and a potentially precedent-setting regulatory determination involving uranium mining in Indian Country are important examples of how CBR can generate credible scientific evidence to prompt government responses to old and new environmental risks in Native American communities. Community-based research gives lay community members and their leaders training and tools to participate in the assessments of their own environmental conditions, in the process increasing expertise and building environmental health capacity locally. These are increasingly important objectives for low-income, minority communities — “environmental justice populations” is the government’s sanitized term — where the political and economic power to enforce environmental restoration requirements and public health investigations is limited and the financial resources even scarcer.

In collaboration with community members, Navajo Nation agencies, USEPA, and three leading academic institutions in the region, Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) has played an important role in helping residents and leaders of Church Rock Chapter and its neighboring Navajo communities plan, coordinate and implement research and policy development on the exigent uranium mining issues in the area. These examples of successful CBR collaborations can serve as models for action by other American Indian communities.

Part I: Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project (CRUMP)

According to tribal, state and federal records, 16 mines and a uranium mill once operated in the Church Rock, N.M., area. At the height of mining and processing in the mid-to-late 1970s, more than 900 people worked in what was known as the Church Rock Mining District. But along with the benefits of employment came widespread environmental impacts. Between about 1968 and 1982, millions of cubic yards of mine and mill wastes were generated at just four mining and milling sites, and an estimated 30 billion gallons of contaminated mine water were discharged to local arroyos and streams, much of it untreated or poorly treated. On July 16, 1979, a dam holding uranium processing wastewater and mill tailings at the United Nuclear Corp. (UNC) uranium mill burst open, releasing 94 million gallons of acidic effluent (pH = 1.5) and 1,100 tons of tailings. Several elderly residents suffered burns on their feet and legs when they unknowingly waded into the Puerco River following the spill. Later studies revealed that cattle and sheep raised in the area had accumulated significantly higher levels of radioactive materials in their edible muscle and organs than livestock that had never grazed or watered in mining areas. Government scientists attributed this bioaccumulation largely to the animals’ consumption of contaminated mine water that had turned the North Fork of the Puerco into a perennial stream for nearly 20 years.

Despite that fact that about 1,000 people lived within five miles of the mining complex, including hundreds who had worked in the mines and mill, no human health study was conducted during that time. In fact, state and federal agencies were openly hostile to the idea. SRIC, for instance, was roundly criticized in 1982 when it recommended the creation of a health registry for community members living in the Church Rock area. Not until 2003 when Church Rock Chapter formed the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project (CRUMP) did government begin paying attention to environmental health concerns in the area.

“This should have been done 20 years ago,” Church Rock Chapter President Johnny Livingston told representatives of tribal, federal and state agencies, academic institutions and non-governmental organizations when they gathered in October 2003 to begin the first of several environmental assessments to learn the extent of mining impacts in and near residential areas.

Using a truck-mounted gamma radiation scanner loaned by USEPA’s Las Vegas, Nevada, laboratory and hand-held gamma radiation detectors[1], a team of more than 30 people — including several trained community members working alongside PhD-level scientists — spent parts of four days driving and walking highways and roads in the chapter, recording gamma radiation levels every 1 to 5 steps. The results of that work are reflected in the following data[2]:

  • Gamma radiation levels in areas of the Chapter not impacted by uranium mining ranged, on average, from 11 microRoengtens per hour (uR/hr) in Church Rock Village next to Interstate 40, to 13 uR/hr at the Springstead housing development site five miles north of the Village. This range of “background”[3] radiation levels was the first of its kind in parts of the Chapter that had never before been surveyed.
  • Gamma radiation levels along State Route 566 next to the Old Churchrock Mine site and on Navajo grazing lands downwind of the site ranged from 2 to more than 16 times higher than background. Statistical analyses of the survey data suggested two sources for these high readings: ore that had spilled from uncovered trucks exiting the mining site in the early 1960s and again between 1978 and 1982, and wind deposition of contaminated soils from the mine site itself. At least four Navajo families live within one-quarter mile of the Old Churchrock Mine; one resident, Larry J. King, raises 20 to 25 head of cattle on 440 acres that include survey sites having the highest gamma radiation levels.
  • Gamma radiation levels ranged up to 30 times background on Navajo Reservation lands downwind of the UNC’s Northeast Church Rock Mine (NECRM) site in what is called the Red Water Pond Road residential area where the Navajo chapters of Church Rock, Coyote Canyon, Nahodishgish and Pinedale intersect on either side of the 1880 Executive Order Navajo Reservation boundary[4].
  • Uranium concentrations in the top 6 inches to 1 foot of soil in the same area adjacent to the NECRM ranged from the mid-range of background (i.e., 1.3 parts per million [ppm]), to 65 ppm, or nearly 22 times higher than the upper end of background (which is about 3 ppm); 83 percent of these samples exceeded the upper end of background and the mean of the 18 samples was 18.6 ± 17.2 ppm with no outliers removed[5].

CRUMP’s findings in the Red Water Pond Road area clearly indicated impacts of the NECRM site on Navajo Reservation lands abutting the mine. The gamma radiation levels decreased with distance from the mine waste pile, and uranium levels were highest in soils closest to the waste pile. Other than natural conditions, the only sources of uranium-related contaminants in the area were the NECR Mine, the Kerr-McGee Church Rock Mine located 0.5 mile north of NECRM, and the UNC mill and tailings facility located 1.5 miles southeast of Red Water Pond Road. The surfaces of the rock formations in the area do not contain uranium. Mine water was discharged from settling ponds on the NECRM site into an unnamed arroyo that flowed next to three Navajo homes nearly constantly between 1968 and 1983, and surface erosion of mine wastes from the waste dump at the north end of the NECR site is clearly visible when walking the area.

The radiation survey and uranium-in-soil results also represented potentially significant chronic exposures for people who live and herd livestock in the area. The close proximity of the NECRM to Navajo homes is startling to first-time visitors to the Red Water Pond Road area. At least four homes are located within 1,000 feet of the mine and its waste piles; at least 15 are located within one-quarter mile; and at least 30 homes are located within 1 mile. Residences of the area are sandwiched between the NECR Mine to the south and the abandoned, but partially reclaimed Kerr-McGee Corp. Church Rock Mine to the north — a distance of less than 0.4 mile.

The CRUMP gamma-radiation assessment results, coupled with concerns about the close proximity of human “receptors” to a known contaminated site and area, are cited by Navajo Nation EPA (NNEPA) officials as among the principal reasons why they asked USEPA in 2005 to assume regulatory jurisdiction over cleanup of the NECR mine. USEPA officials from the regional office in San Francisco announced publicly in January their intention to use federal Superfund authority to require cleanup of the mine, including the possible removal of a 60-foot high waste dump located at the property boundary with the Navajo Reservation and within 500 feet of the closet Navajo home. The CRUMP results have also been cited in resolutions adopted by Church Rock and Coyote Canyon chapters requesting notification of and participation in federal and tribal regulatory processes governing cleanup of the site and advocating for possible legal action against the past operator to recover damages to Navajo Nation lands and resources.

A joint USEPA-NNEPA Superfund enforcement process is expected to began this spring concurrently with community involvement meetings at which residents are being invited to make recommendations for off-site assessment needs, reclamation strategies, local health studies, and possible compensation for damages to tribal trust and reservation lands occupied and impacted by the mine.

The CRUMP assessment results particular to the Old Churchrock Mine site not only demonstrated off-site effects of past mining in publicly accessible areas, but also raised difficult questions about how the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) defines “background” radiation. In two legal briefs on radioactive air emissions from the proposed HRI Section 17 ISL mine filed by ENDAUM and SRIC in 2005, the Intervenors argued that the NRC staff should have required HRI to include existing contaminant levels at the abandoned mine site in its dose calculations for new ISL mining on the grounds that the existing contamination is human-caused, not natural, and that HRI has had control of the Section 17 property, including its contaminated areas, since the early 1990s, but has chosen to leave much of the contaminated materials in place and not to conduct full-scale reclamation. While an NRC administrative law judge agreed that the old mine site contains wastes from past mining, he found that those wastes are now a subset of natural background and therefore HRI is not required to include doses from those wastes in its total dose calculation. Intervenors’ attorneys at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center said in a January 2006 appeal to the Commission that the judge’s decision essentially legalizes potentially harmful human-caused radiological contamination in violation of NRC’s mandate under the Atomic Energy Act to promote human health and public safety. The full Commission is expected to rule on the appeal later this year.

PART II: Section 8 Jurisdictional Determination

USEPA’s November 2, 2005, public notice sought comments on whether the agency should determine if the southeastern quarter section of Section 8 (Township 16 North Range 16 West) in Church Rock Chapter is “Indian Country” and therefore subject to regulation by USEPA or the Navajo Nation EPA (NNEPA) under authority of the SDWA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) provisions. Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI), which owns the surface of the 160-acre tract and acquired mining claims that were patented by previous corporate owners in May 1970, must obtain a UIC permit before it can begin ISL mining, which under the law is a form of injection into underground sources of drinking water. If Section 8 is determined to be Indian Country under the law, USEPA would review a UIC permit application from HRI and have jurisdiction to issue or deny the permit. Should NNEPA eventually be granted “primacy” to implement and enforce the UIC program on behalf of USEPA, the Navajo Nation would be the regulator of HRI’s ISL mining. If USEPA determines that Section 8 is not Indian Country, then UIC regulation would fall to the New Mexico Environment Department.

In response to the USEPA public notice, the Navajo Nation Department of Justice (NNDOJ) reiterated its long-standing argument that all of Section 8, including the 160-acre tract owned by HRI, is “Indian Country” because it is located in a “dependent Indian community,” Church Rock Chapter. The Chapter is the appropriate “community of reference,” NNDOJ argued, because it receives virtually all of its services either from the Navajo Nation or the federal government or both; the vast majority of the local population is Native Americans (in this case, Navajo); and about 95 percent of the lands in the chapter are either designed as “Indian lands” or are used by Navajos for traditional home sites, grazing, and other agricultural pursuits.

NNDOJ also submitted more than 300 pages of historic documents that trace the history of land statuses in the Church Rock area. At one time in 1907, the Church Rock area was added to the Navajo Reservation by presidential executive order, only to have that order reversed by a later president in 1911. By 1929, much of the land that had been removed from reservation status were restored as lands held in trust for the Navajo tribe by the U.S. Government, or “tribal trust” lands. Hence, from a purely historical perspective, for the past 100 years the Church Rock area has been part of Navajo Indian Country.

ENDAUM’s and SRIC’s comments also addressed the community of reference analysis, arguing that Church Rock Chapter meets all of the tests of recent court cases that addressed Indian Country jurisdictional disputes. “Church Rock Chapter shows cohesiveness of culture, language, infrastructure, land use, and aquifer use,” wrote Attorney Eric Jantz of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) in a January 30 letter to David Albright of USEPA Region 9. Jantz cited a sworn statement by Church Rock Chapter President Johnny Livingston that summarized how the Chapter is organized pursuant to Navajo statutes, has completed a Land Use Plan and is applying for certification as a local government under the Navajo Nation’s Local Governance Act, and obtains most of its public infrastructure, including water and wastewater services, from the Navajo Nation.

USEPA's scanner van used to measure gamma radiation readings along roadways.

Inside the scanner van is the sodium iodide detector that takes the readings.For its part, Church Rock Chapter adopted a resolution on January 15, 2006, finding that the southeast quarter of Section 8 should be determined by USEPA to be “Indian Country” because it is located in “Navajo Indian Country” and is “virtually landlocked by Indian lands” to the east, south, west, north and northeast and by lands used by Navajos located to the southeast, southwest and northwest. The resolution also cited the Chapter’s Land Use Plan, which showed that “Navajo livestock grazing occurs on all lands surrounding and within Section 8.”

The Chapter’s assertion that Navajo livestock have grazed on Section 8 was supported by the oral testimonies of several residents interviewed by SRIC staff in January. With the help of Navajo activist Norman Brown, a professional videographer, and the use of NMELC’s new digital video camera, the residents’ statements were recorded on digital video tape and copied to a DVD, which was submitted to USEPA as an exhibit to ENDAUM’s and SRIC’s January 30 written comments.

In the video, Chapter President Johnny Livingston describes how the local residents refer to a canyon that is located on the eastern half of Section 8. “This canyon is well known as a cattle area, and there’s a name for it, they call it ‘Cattle Area’ or ‘Cattle Canyon,’” Livingston said. “In Navajo, it was called ‘Beegashii bahooghan bisesdla’” [literally, the cattle, their home in the canyon]. “As far as I know from growing up here there used to be hundreds of cattle here.”

Other life-long residents agreed with Livingston’s understanding of the history of the area. Rancher Larry J. King, who lives on Section 17 just south of Section 8, said, “All through my lifetime, I have seen Navajo livestock and cattle in that area. And I remember we used to have our cattle back in that canyon. Our neighbors to the south, the Hood camp, utilized that canyon as far back as I can remember. So that canyon has always been utilized by Navajo ranchers.”

In his teen years, King said, “my family participated in a cattle drive with the Hood camp. There’s a trail that goes up the side of the ridge. But they used to herd what I believe was several hundred head of cattle up the side of the mountain, all the way to the top, and that’s where they’d have the cattle winter up on top of the mountain here.”

NNEPA and CRUMP members take gamma radiation readings beside State Route 566.

Residents said their families routinely hiked to the mesa tops on Section 8 to gather herbs and plants for use in making traditional medicines and conducting healing ceremonies. Ned Yazzie, a former uranium miner, said his grandfather and other local medicine men used lands on top of the mesa in Section 8 to gather plants and hold traditional medicine ceremonies. Marie Arviso Johnson, who said she has lived all of her 61 years on lands located about 1 mile south of Section 8, said her late sister, Elsie James, “used to go up on the top of that mountain and collect herbs, which she then brewed for her younger siblings. After taking that Navajo medicine, we would feel good and that it really helped us in the long run.”

Louis Eskeets, president of the Chapter’s Land Use Committee, said he and other community leaders object to the position taken by the New Mexico Environment Department and the New Mexico State Engineer Office that the state has jurisdiction over Section 8 because it is not Indian Country. “As far as we look back, it’s always been Indian Country,” Eskeets said. “Because of the title of the land, ‘Navajo Indian Country,’ it starts with the name of our people, ‘Navajo,’ and so therefore we are strongly opposed to the State of New Mexico taking jurisdiction; it should be Indian Country.”

As illustrated by the oral statements of these and other Church Rock residents, community-based research can literally give a voice to community members who, because of language barriers, remoteness and sheer lack of political power, cannot participate in decisions that affect them, other than through the spoken word. It is highly unlikely that Johnny Livingston, Larry King, Ned Yazzie, Marie Johnson or Louis Eskeets would have contributed their knowledge of their own community to the record of the USEPA jurisdictional determination had Church Rock Chapter officials not insisted that residents’ oral statements be recorded on tape.


CBR is but one method communities can use to assess environmental health risks and evaluate the policy implications of resource development, including uranium mining. Ultimately, the communities will decide such issues for themselves based on the best research tool of all – their own personal experiences and perspectives. For Church Rock resident Harry Livingston, the decision is weighed heavily on traditional beliefs.

“From the uranium development,” he said, “we have lost several community members, friends, relatives, acquaintances. Uranium has also affected our livestock. We use our livestock, we consume them, we use them for food, and because of the meat we ingest from the animals, it has caused medical problems by consuming the meat. And it has affected us from head to toe, and to this day we are suffering these ill effects.

“From what I believe, these issues have caused disharmony among our people. Because of this disharmony, we don’t see rain as we used to, and [the wind] is forever blowing, and I believe it’s because of our destruction of Mother Earth that there’s disharmony among us, the Navajo people. All we wish for is for the people to listen to us, respect our wishes, and to leave the land the way it is.”


  1. The truck-mounted scanner is a large-scale sodium iodide detector. The hand-held instruments were Ludlum Model 19 NaI detectors that had been calibrated prior to field use.
  2. Gamma radiation survey data were compiled in Excel spreadsheets by collaborators from USEPA’s Radiation and Indoor Environments Laboratory in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Tribal Air Monitoring Support (TAMS) Center in Las Vegas, Nev., and SRIC in Albuquerque. Statistical analyses of the data were performed by Melinda Ronca-Battista, a certified health physicist with the TAMS Center, who is based in Phoenix, Arizona. Digital mapping of the data was performed by Jerry Begay, a GIS specialist with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Program.
  3. The CRUMP radiation surveys were conducted using the MARSSIM strategy, the “Multi-Agency Radiation Survey and Site Investigation Manual,” that was developed by several federal agencies, including USEPA, to standardize radiation assessment protocols used in the U.S. (See www.epa.gov/radiation/marssim.) Under MARSSIM, areas are either “non-impacted” or “impacted” from activities or facilities that generate and release radioactive materials. While MARSSIM does not use the term “background,” it is used here because it is generally understood among lay people to mean what occurs naturally without human interference, and is a legal term within certain federal regulations, including those of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (See 10 C.F.R. § 20.1003.)
  4. CRUMP gamma rates were recorded on Reservation lands up to the base of the mine waste embankment at the north end of the UNC NECRM property. NNEPA conducted a gamma rate survey on the mine site in Fall 2005 and found a similar range of gamma rates at the base of the waste embankment next to three mine water settling ponds. Both the CRUMP October 2003 gamma rates and the NNEPA Fall 2005 rates have been consolidated on a map of the site issued by NNEPA’s Superfund Program in December 2005.
  5. These data were reported by Stanford student Christine George, who was a volunteer field technician for CRUMP in December 2004. Ms. George’s sample collection methodologies were consistent with the MARSSIM strategy, and the reported uranium-in-soil values were derived from Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry
    (ICP-MS) laboratory analyses.

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“New Mexico is an energy colony and energy development and natural resources exploitation must remain the focus of much of SRIC’s work. Although we continue to study problems which we feel are timely and of national import, as a public interest research organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Southwest Research and Information Center continues to remain responsive to community groups with constantly changing needs, bringing our technical and journalistic expertise to bear on local problems.”
—Katherine Montague, Editor
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Volume 1, No. 14, April 1978

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