Anaconda, New Mexico: Small Town Destroyed by Uranium and the EPA
Our adventure began the night before, in a torrential downpour.
The sun was setting fast, and we couldn't see much of the road anyway; between the deluge from above and the rogue side waves caused by passing trucks, we were piloting submarines, not cars. We had to get off the road soon. My friend told me there was nothing left in Anaconda, so we would have to spend the night somewhere else anyway.
Our brains addled from too much driving, Laura and I reluctantly decided to stay in the least seedy hotel in Grants, NM, which is about 10 miles south of the former mining town of Anaconda.
There isn't really much at all in Grants. Our hotel was along the main drag, and was one of just a couple options; there were, after all, 2 of us, our 6 kids, and a dog. The door to our room barely closed; even though it technically locked, the knob teetered, unscrewed and unattached, inside the hole in the door. But our other option was sleeping in our cars.
A group of down and out but friendly folks sat on plastic chairs outside of the room next to ours, talking and laughing with big toothless grins. They were smoking what smelled like weed and drinking whiskey out of plastic cups. I guess our room wasn't so bad, but you could tell from the 70s paintings and the floor to ceiling Mamie Eisenhower pink porcelain in the bathroom that most tourists had avoided this hotel for decades.
The beds allowed us a good night's sleep and in the morning, we headed to Anaconda. I tentatively led the way in my SUV; Laura followed in her little green Honda.
We drove north on the interstate; there has never been an exit for Anaconda, so we exited at a big truck stop a few miles north of Grants, then drove up the frontage road for a few miles. Laura is remembering those long lost years, so takes the lead; good thing, because there are no road signs pointing the way to Anaconda. She remembers having to go under the railroad tracks, so we head in that direction. When we arrived at the bridge, we couldn't go any farther; the rain had formed a lake under the tracks. Laura said she thought we could walk the rest of the way, so we parked in the shadow of the bridge and headed out on foot.
It was a nice day, not too hot. Clouds ambled along the sky, contemplating whether they wanted to rain again. We skirted the lake under the bridge and headed up a small hill towards what used to be Anaconda.
The road was paved but obviously didn't see much traffic. At first, the landscape on either side of us looked like normal, empty meadow.
I looked around at the sagebrush, thinking we might be in the wrong place. "Where is it?"
Laura gestured to the area north of the road. "All this was a town," she said, continuing to walk.
- History of the Anaconda Company / Britannica.com
Former American mining company, for much of the 20th century one of the largest mining companies in the world.
History of Anaconda's Uranium Mine
The Anaconda Gold and Silver Mining Company was started in 1880 by a group of California investors in Butte, Montana. In 1882, the mine hit a rich vein of copper; by 1895, they had changed the name to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. They soon branched out into other metals, changing their name to Anaconda Company in 1955 to reflect the diversity of their products.
The Jackpile-Paguate Mine, located about 10 miles north of Grants, NM, opened in 1953. It went on to become the world's largest open-pit uranium mine until its closure in 1982.
From the Harvard Crimson, May 2, 1979:
"Anaconda made the first discovery of uranium in the U.S. at Laguna Pueblo, N.M., in 1951. Within 20 years, Anaconda's mine [had] become the largest uranium strip mine in the world, over five miles long and without any prospect for restoring the land to its original condition."
By the mid-1970s—in just 20 short years—Anaconda's mining operations in the area had greatly contaminated the soil and water of mostly tribal land. The Natives were fed up:
"This conference follows a law suit filed in December 1978 by 92 Navajos and one Acoma Indian in an effort to halt uranium production indefinitely. These two groups represent contingents of growing Indian resistance to government and corporate exploitation of Indian land, resources and people ... Environmental impact statements are required by the National Environmental Policy Act for all federal actions which significantly affect the environment. The plaintiffs contend that since 1970, many of these actions have been approved without the EIS's. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has approved 303 Indian uranium leases, and the U.S. Geological Service okayed nine mining and reclamation plans. Both of these agencies fall under the Department of the Interior." 1
The Anaconda Company didn't protect its employees from the pollution, either. Did I mention that Laura's family lived in a house built with radioactive materials from the mine?
You Don't Realize You've Gone Too Far
As Laura and I walked along the road, there were increasing signs of a lost civilization; clothesline poles here, a twisted electric meter there, the occasional cement slab dotting what seemed like an empty field. Still, no cars passed us on the road. We cautiously walked down into the ditch and closer to the remnants of what had been a quaint town. Laura told us about riding her bike and walking to school. About normal times in a town that didn't exist any more.
She pointed to where the post office, school and swimming pool used to be. The swimming pool that must have practically glowed from radioactivity. She said it was a good time in her life, but above all else it was very normal.
As we walked further, the kids couldn't contain their boredom. The whining began, and the treasure hunting. Junk to collect. Bottles to break. Still no cars and an eery silence surrounded us.
I suddenly panicked. "NO! Put it down! Don't touch anything!" I knocked a bottle out of my son's hand, suddenly remembering: You can't see it, smell it, or taste it, but it's everywhere. Radioactivity. Poison.
I took some more pictures, and Laura and I agreed we should head back to the car. There is that saying that you can't ever go home, but for those kids who grew up in Anaconda, it is an absolute truth. It made me sad for her, that there was nothing left.
No trips down memory lane, because if you linger, the lane will kill you.
The Worst Nuclear Disaster in the US Happened Four Months after Three Mile Island
In the early morning of July 16, 1979, disaster struck in the Grants Mineral Belt.
It didn't happen at the Jackpile Mine near Anaconda, but about 40 miles NW at United Nuclear Corporation's Church Rock Uranium Mine. The tailings disposal pond breached its dam and "... [over] 1,000 tons of solid radioactive mill waste and 93 million gallons of acidic, radioactive tailings solution flowed into the Puerco River, and contaminants traveled 80 miles (130 km) downstream to Navajo County, Arizona and onto the Navajo Nation.
"... The accident is frequently described as having released more radioactivity than the Three Mile Island accident that occurred four months earlier and was the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history. The spill contaminated groundwater and rendered the Puerco unusable by local residents. The governor of New Mexico refused the Navajo Nation's request that the site be declared a federal disaster area, limiting aid to affected residents." 2
This accident actually released three times the radioactive material as the Three Mile Island disaster.
Robinson Kelly, Church Rock Chapter Vice President, recounted his experience of that morning to The Navajo Times:
"... [that] morning, July 16, 1979, his uncle told him to keep the horses in the corral.
"Kelly went to the "Puerky" [Puerco River], which in modern times has been more of an arroyo than a river, rarely running with water. But that day, it was filled to overflowing with rushing water.
"He remembers looking at the sky and seeing no rain clouds. He also remembers the color of the water.
""It was yellowish," Kelly said. "I didn't know what was going on but it was an ugly feeling. I went to work and found out the dam broke."" 3
I asked Laura and her brother, Dan, if they remembered the day the dam broke. They were still living in Anaconda at the time of the accident.
Neither of them remembers hearing anything about it. Their family moved to Denver in 1982.
The Firsthand Experience
What was it like, growing up in Anaconda?
Laura: I was really pretty young. We moved [away from Anaconda] when I was 10.
I think I was four when we moved there. It seems to me I had just turned four, so normal? It was basically all I knew. That's normal to me. We lived there for seven years. I'm not entirely sure what dad did exactly.
There were old lava flows everywhere, and right behind our house. I remember playing in those all the time. It was a great place for a little girl to explore! I would ride my bike all over the little town ... if you could even call it a town! I loved riding my bike more than anything. That and playing in the lava flows. There was a name for them ... I think malpais is the right word. Anyway, those are my best memories. Climbing around the malpais and riding my bike all over the place. I loved elementary school there and all my friends. As a little kid, I thought it was great.
As an adult looking back, I realized it may not have been so much for my parents. I asked my mom how it was for her, and my biggest takeaway from those conversations with her was that there were so many good people. She said she made wonderful friends there, and loved the people.
While I thought my time there was great, I didn't miss it when we moved to Colorado. It wasn't really until you and I went back, and there was NOTHING there, that I felt a loss. My kids will never know the cool little community that I spent my childhood in.
Also, I do worry about health, now that I'm older. My sister has a serious autoimmune disease, my dad has had health issues ... I can't help but wonder if living there for seven years has negatively affect all of our health.
Dan: Also, Pete's glandular function has all but shut down.
Laura: Yep. I was just thinking of that too. Oh yeah, I had a benign lump removed from my breast my senior year of high school.
Were there any restrictions?
Like drinking water or not being able to grow anything?
Laura: Not that I recall. In fact, it seems we always had a little garden. Dan, you should answer more!
Dan: Last time I personally visited the Anaconda site might have been in 1995, when I drove up from TX to UT to scout out jobs in advance of moving up there. Even then the houses were already gone and it was kind of spooky, like a ghost town.
I still have dreams often where I'm back there. I think we lived there from 1974-1981. Those were some of my formative growing-up years.
At the time I hated living out in the sticks. I was an anxious, depressed kid. But I don't think that was because of Anaconda. Looking back, we had a pretty idyllic life there and I'm grateful for it.
SO...dad was a Sr. Mining Engineer. Basically he would use a computer to analyze assay data and print out maps telling the miners where to dig next, how much uranium ore was in the ground, stuff like that. At least that was how I understood it.
Life there was pretty normal, I guess. There were lots of friends to play with. We played baseball and hide-and-seek and kick-the-can. We played in the hills and explored caves and built forts in the hill behind our house out of the malpais rock, which was everywhere. It was like natural building bricks for little kids.
One time dad brought home a rock containing actual uranium ore and one night I slept with it under my pillow, just to be funny, I guess. The next morning I woke up with a headache. No joke.
Laura: Ohhhhh my gosh!!! Funny/not funny!!
Dan: Maybe that caused my stroke decades later. Kidding!
Also we rode our bikes everywhere and fished in the ponds which I guess were stocked with bluegill fish, I don't know. We caught them and threw them back in but never ate them.
There were three quonset huts built which contained a swimming pool, a bowling alley, and a basketball court, which was also used for skating, and we had dances for the teens. We had outdoor basketball and tennis courts in the area near the quonsets.
Laura went to a preschool which was held in a little classroom in the back of the basketball court quonset.
Pete has a large aerial photograph of the whole area as it was back in the day. I should try and get a pic of it to send to you. You would no doubt find that interesting.
Laura: I loved my preschool!
Do either of you remember when the accident happened up the road?
When the dam burst? You were there until 1981 and the dam at the Church Rock holding pond broke in 1979. They say it's worse than the accident at 3 Mile Island.
Laura: I don't remember that at all.
Dan: I don't remember either.
Natives Can't Forget the Problem That Will Never Go Away
As long as the uranium was still in the ground, it wasn't an issue. But the legacy of uranium mining in the Grants Mineral Belt is still an open wound for both the environment and the native tribes who live there.
The Navajo and Laguna tribes have done their part to mitigate the devastation wrought by uranium mining on their tribal lands; devastation, by the way, that was caused in just three short decades. The Navajo Nation bears the lion's share of the toxic waste from all sites. 4 Cancer is now an epidemic in the area; notably because these types of cancers were nearly unheard of among natives prior to the uranium mining.
Three sites in the Grants Mineral Belt are Superfund Cleanup Sites. It is unlikely that they will ever be returned to their pristine state of pre-uranium mining.
From the EPA site:
"[The] EPA is working with the Department of Justice to settle all claims (EPA "enforcement first" policy).
"In 1986, the Pueblo of Laguna, the Department of Interior, (DOI) Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Anaconda/ARCO entered into a reclamation agreement under a Record of Decision (ROD). It was agreed the reclamation work would be completed by the Laguna Pueblo. In June 1995, the Jackpile Reclamation Project was completed however, sampling and analysis of groundwater and surface water continued under the reclamation plan for about 10 years before all reclamation work ceased. Limited groundwater and surface water sampling and analysis continue through other environmental programs at the Laguna Pueblo.
"The Pueblo of Laguna asked EPA to consider the site for listing on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List (NPL). EPA has explored other cleanup options in lieu of listing with the Department of Interior. However, no other alternate mechanism to address releases have been identified. EPA proposed the site for listing on the NPL in March 2012. The Site was listed December 12, 2013." 5
Sounds like a whole lotta nothin' to me.
DRAFT Grants Mining District, New Mexico 2015 – 2020 Five-Year Plan to Assess and Address Health and Environmental Impacts Of Uranium Mining and Milling
Update: I recently rewatched the movie Thunderheart. I saw it in theaters when it first came out, in 1992, and even though I was sympathetic to the plight of the American Indian, I didn't understand many of the references in the movie.
SPOILER: A central theme of the film is the destruction of the ecosystem of the reservation by uranium drilling. The US Government was in cahoots with mining companies to extract uranium, which irreversably polluted the land and sickened many citizens on the reservation.
Thunderheart is a work of fiction, but this is what happened in real life in 1979 at the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Arizona. The issue was ignored then, it was ignored after Thunderheart, and it is ignored to this day.
I notice that Greta Thunberg didn't bring up the destruction of Navajo lands, or recognize any Navajo leaders who have tried to bring this issue to a wider audience.
1 Westigaard, Winona La Duke. "Uranium Mines on Native Land | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson." Uranium Mines on Native Land | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson. The Harvard Crimson, Inc., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1979/5/2/uranium-mines-on-native-land-pthe/>. Originally published in the Harvard Crimson on May 2, 1979.