July 16, 1979 Yellow Dirt

To this day the spill at Church Rock remains the US’ worst nuclear disaster, and best kept secret.

They call themselves Diné, (din neh) meaning literally, “the people”. Originally a hunter/gatherer culture, the Diné are believed to have migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska long before there were such place names, around the year 1400. Mostly hunters and gatherers at this time, they lived in a region known as Dinétah, occupying parts of the modern American states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Over time, the Diné adopted the farming methods of the Pueblo peoples, mainly the “three sisters” of corn, squash and beans. They acquired livestock, sheep and goats mostly, the animals becoming not only food sources but also symbols of wealth, and status. Tewa-speaking pueblo groups called them Navahu, meaning large areas of cultivated land. Spanish settlers knew them as, Navajo.

In the 21st century, many Navajos live a traditional lifestyle including language, religious practices a social structure based on kinship, and locality of residence. Despite the legacy of bitterness resulting from 19th century conflicts between first nations and relative newcomers to the North American continent, Navajos have volunteered for military service in numbers disproportionate to their population.

Shiprock (Navajo: Tsé Bitʼaʼí, “rock with wings” ), located in traditional Dinétah territory (northwestern New Mexico). – H/T Wikipedia

During World War 1 some 10,000 “Indians” including Navajo served the United States armed services both as volunteers, and conscripts. Navajo “code talkers” served a pivotal role during World War 2, building on the work of the Choctaw during the “Great War” and producing secret communications based on native languages, indecipherable to the adversary.

The number four is sacred to the Navajo people. The four cardinal directions of north, south, east and west. The four seasons. The four original clans and the creation story, of four worlds. Four mountains mark the land given to the people of Navajo lore, by the creator. The four day-parts of dawn, day, dusk and night. Four colors correspond to each of four mountains marking the land: the color white for shell, the blue of turquoise, the shimmering black of obsidian and the color yellow, representing but one shade of the multi-colored abalone.

A yellow that most assuredly DOES NOT symbolize, Uranium.

In August 1939, a letter written by physicist Leó Szilárd and signed by Albert Einstein warned President Franklin Roosevelt that Nazi Germany was working to develop a war-winning super weapon. A bomb, capable of obliterating entire cities in a single blast. The American-led effort to produce such a weapon began in 1942, the US Army component of the team at first headquartered in Manhattan. So began the ultra-secret “Manhattan Project” culminating in the Trinity test blast of July 16, 1945 and that famous line from the “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita:

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds“.

First used during WW1 to harden the steel hulls of ocean-going vessels, vanadium is often bound with oxygen and other substances in a lemon yellow, radioactive mineral called carnotite. One of the substances contained in this “yellow dirt”, is Uranium.

First identified by German chemist Martin Klaproth in 1789, Uranium is 40 times as common as silver but only rarely found, in concentration. The ancient Romans used the stuff in its natural oxide form as early as the year 79, to add a yellow hue to ceramic glazes.

credit: Getty Images

The Navajo were no strangers to the yellow rocks of the Dinetah, possessed as it is of one of the highest concentrations of such minerals, on the planet. Fed by the need to defeat Nazi Germany, the 1942 “discovery” of yellow dirt on Navajo lands set off a feeding frenzy from which the people, have yet to recover.

Such concentrations were well suited to the work of men and wheelbarrows and Navajo men went to work, as miners. That the stuff was dangerous in high concentrations was well known to mining corporations, military and government officials alike, but no matter. There was a war going on.

The squared-off contours of blasted rock it turned out, made for very fine building material. The by-products of Uranium mines could be used in a cement nearly the equal of concrete, so these unstable, mildly radioactive minerals were concentrated not only in the lives of Navajo miners but also in their homes, in which they built masonry additions. The ovens in which they cooked their bread were often built, using yellow rocks. The clothing of Navajo children playing outside were stained by yellow dust.

Even among those not in daily contact with dangerous minerals many lacked running water, on the reservation. Water resources themselves were often contaminated.

Susan Black, who lost her son Sylvester Stanley to Navajo neuropathy, drank from the open pits during her pregnancy while sheep herding. The grazing territory had been so parched at times they drank from puddles in depressions of the sandstone less than a mile from the mine where uranium residue was everywhere”. Hat tip TeenVogue, and Gail Fisher

World War 2 gave way to the “cold war” but the need for uranium, seemed without end. Sickness and death occurred among the Navajo in numbers disproportionate, to their population. Cancers of the liver, kidney, stomach and lungs. A mélange of symptoms affecting mostly (but not entirely) children received a name, hitherto unheard of: “Navajo Neuropathy“.

William McCray, 4, overlooks a clean up operation of radium and uranium contaminated soils near his home on Oct. 9, 2009. Uranium mining from the mid-1900s left over 500 unregulated mines scattered once mining stopped in 1986. Photo by Teddy Nez” – H/T indiearizona.com

Helen Nez is but one person, among many. For most of her adult life she drank from a spring located on Navajo lands, in northeastern Arizona. Uranium levels were at least five times greater than safe drinking water standards, but who knew? The stuff has no odor. It has no taste. Helen Nez gave birth, ten times. Four of her children died, as toddlers. Three died as young adults, their bellies bloated, their eyes, turned gray. The last three are all adults now. All of them have serious health problems.

There is barely a parent alive who doesn’t dread the death of their child. Helen Nez lost seven. Thanks to Helen Nez herself and northcountrypublicradio.org for this image

Four generations of Navajo have come and gone since that first discovery, in 1942. Activist types have come, and they went home. Mining company commitments to restore the land to its original form, failed to materialize. Elected officials conducted hearings. Congressmen with familiar names like Waxman and Udall showed seemingly genuine concern, but little came of it. Bureaucratic Washington offered bland and infuriatingly meaningless responses to pointed questions. The EPA even refused assistance to one family whose hilltop home was the victim of “natural” radiation. Until their “hill” was demonstrated to be a pile of mine waste.

By 1977, the discarded by-products of Uranium mines formed piles large enough climb and enjoy the view, but I wouldn’t recommend it. That was the year United Nuclear Corporation took a different approach. A pond.

Mining and crushing up to 4,000 tons of ore daily leaves a prodigious amount of waste. “Yellowcake” is extracted leaving a sandy sludge, called tailings. These may contain up to 85% of the radioactivity, of the original ore. Another byproduct of the acid leach solvent extraction process is called “liquor”, a witches brew containing Thorium-230, Radium-222, Lead-210 and other isotopes.

A 20-foot breach in the Church Rock tailings dam opened around 5:30 on the morning of July 16, 1979 H/T Wikipedia

At 5:30am on July 16, 1979, the dam holding back the Church Rock tailings pond, gave way . A thousand tons of Uranium mill waste and 93 million gallons of acidic, radioactive tailings solution gushed through an ever-widening breach in the dam, down the pipeline arroyo and into the Puerco River, a tributary to the Little Colorado River.

A little perspective on what 93 million gallons looks like.

Was there anyone alive on March 28, 1979, who didn’t hear about Three Mile Island? The New York-Washington media corridor went wall to wall with coverage as they tend to do, with stories that effect them personally.

And yet, the Church Rock nuclear release four months later far exceeded that of Three Mile Island. Ever hear of Church Rock? Don’t feel bad if the answer is no. The “News” just wasn’t that into it. The Navajo Nation requested a disaster declaration from New Mexico Governor Bruce King, in order to facilitate federal assistance with the cleanup. For reasons which remain unclear, the governor refused such a declaration.

Between 1944 and 1986 some 521 mines extracted 30 million tons of Uranium ore from Navajo lands. Most of that was sold to the United States Atomic Energy Commission, until 1966, the only customer.

To this day the spill at Church Rock remains the US’ worst nuclear disaster, and best kept secret.

In 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed into law establishing an administrative framework for compensating victims of radiation, whether from atmospheric nuclear testing or employment in uranium mining. As of April 20 2018, 34,372 claims have been approved with total compensation amounting to $2,243,205,380. On June 7, 2022, the president signed into law the RECA Extension Act of 2022. This law extends the termination of the RECA Trust Fund and the filing deadline for all claims for two years from its date of enactment.

Thus far, several Navajo have received the maximum compensation allowed under the act, of $100,000. Even so. It’s difficult to understand how something like this remains to torment so few, for so many years. All that really matters is results. Everything else is excuses.


“The 2020-2029 Ten-Year Plan continues the effort of the previous Five-Year Plans and identifies the next steps in addressing the human health and environmental risks associated with the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. The Ten-Year Plan was developed in cooperation with multiple federal partner agencies including Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Navajo Area Indian Health Service, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to incorporate goals and milestones for achieving assessment and cleanup actions”.


Special hat tip to LA Times journalist Judy Pasternak for her disturbing and important new book, Yellow Dirt. Much of the material in this essay is based on her work.

April 10, 1951 A Dark Secret

In an age of informed consent and medical ethics review boards, it’s hard to imagine that human beings were once experimented upon, like lab mice.  

In 380BC, Plato’s “Republic” described a societal group possessed of Reason and destined to govern the ideal society, comprised of a second class ruled by “Spirit”, and a third in the thrall of “Appetite”.  This was the Greek philosopher’s “Guardian Class”, an elite and early prototype of a latter-day “Ubermensch”.

In the 19th century, Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, and applied these ideas to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world.  He called this his theory of “Eugenics”.

Eugenics gained worldwide respectability in the early 20th century, when nations from Brazil to Japan adopted policies concerning involuntary sterilization of certain mental patients, the socially “undesirable” and various collections of misfits and outcasts.


“Better Babies” competitions sprang up at state fairs across the United States, where babies were measured, weighed, and “judged”. Like livestock. By the 1920s, such events had evolved into “Fitter Family” competitions.

The darker side of the Eugenics movement involved separating those deemed “inferior”, lest such persons be suffered to breed. By the height of the movement, some 30 states had passed legislation, legalizing involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 American citizens were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.

The oldest public institution for the mentally disabled in the Western Hemisphere is the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, built in 1848.

Today, the place stands empty.  At its height, the 196-acres and 72 buildings of this place were home to some 2,500 “feeble minded boys”, a model for the education of the mentally disabled.  The institution’s third Superintendent Walter E. Fernald was a strong proponent of Eugenics.  The place was renamed in his honor in 1925,  the Walter E. Fernald State School later known as the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center.Walter_E._Fernald_State_School_-_IMG_1860-700x525

“Fernald” served a large population of the mentally disabled, along with a number of others who’d simply been abandoned by their parents.  The Boston Globe has reported as many as half the population, tested in the normal IQ range.

In an age of informed consent and medical ethics review boards, it’s hard to imagine that the government once experimented on its citizens, like lab mice.

The 40-year Tuskegee syphilis experiment begun in 1932 is an infamous example of unethical clinical research, in which 600 impoverished Americans of African ancestry were “studied” for the effects of untreated syphilis. Beginning in 1955 and continuing for fifteen years, medical researchers from NYU and Yale University intentionally infected mentally disabled children of the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island New York with Hepatitis A, in order to study disease progression and potential treatments.

At Fernald, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Quaker Oats Company came together in the study of radioactive oatmeal.  No, Really!


Quaker Oats had been battling it out with Cream of Wheat since 1900, for a share of the lucrative hot cereal market. In the post WW2 period, Quaker alone rang up sales of $277 million. The Federal government’s dietary guidelines of 1943 elevated whole grains as an ideal source of nutrition, but there was a problem. Studies suggested that a naturally occurring cyclic acid called phytates contained in grains like oats, might inhibit the uptake of iron. Farina did not seem to have the same effect.

It was game, set and match to the Cream of Wheat people, and the stakes could not have been higher.

Enter, the “Science Club”.  Conditions were brutal at the Fernald School.  Boys were often deprived of meals or forced to do hard manual labor.  There have been allegations of physical and sexual abuse, forced solitary confinement and threats of lobotomy.


74 boys joined the Science Club beginning in 1946,  more for the goodies than any idea of Science. There were parties and trips to watch Red Sox games, Mickey Mouse watches and lots of hot breakfasts with Quaker Oatmeal, laced with radioactive tracers.

It was the dawn of the nuclear age.  Some 210,000 civilians and GIs were subjected to nuclear radiation, without their knowledge or consent.

So it was that Quaker provided the oats, MIT received funding for the research, and the Fernald School supplied the…er…”Mice”.  By this day in 1951, such experiments were only half-way through.

“In the three experiments, the boys at Fernald ate oats coated with radioactive iron tracers, milk with radioactive calcium tracers (radioactive atoms whose decay is measured to understand chemical reactions happening in the body), and were given injections of radioactive calcium. The first two experiments’ results were encouraging to Quaker: Oatmeal was no worse than farina when it came to inhibiting absorption of iron and calcium into the bloodstream. The third experiment showed that calcium entering the bloodstream goes straight to the bones, which would prove important in later studies of osteoporosis”. – Hat tip, Smithsonian.com

Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary declassified a number of Atomic Energy Commission documents in 1993, resulting in a lawsuit in ’95.  In a hearing before the United States Senate, MIT’s David Litster claimed the experiment exposed the boys to no more than 170 – 330 millirems of radiation, about the same as 30 consecutive chest x-rays.

In January 1998, 30 former “students” settled with the Quaker Oats Company and MIT, for $1.37 Million.  President Bill Clinton apologized on behalf of the Federal Government, and the AEC.


By 2001, the Fernald School was home to only 320 mentally disabled adults, aged 27 to 96 years.  By the time it closed, the cost to the Massachusetts taxpayer was $1 million per year,  per resident.  The last patient was discharged on November 13, 2014, following a protracted legal battle which cost Massachusetts taxpayers another forty million dollars.

Today the place stands empty.  A dark and crumbling monument, to the legacy of government “Health Care”.



A Trivial Matter
Ten experiments, some genius thought would be a good idea.

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