The Environmental Protection Agency aims to haul away thousands of truckloads of the radioactive waste over the next seven years. Residents do not want to stay during that work, but many fear losing their way of life if they are uprooted and unmoored from rural roots and traditions. They have countered the agency’s plan with another solution: construction on a nearby mesa of an off-grid, solar-powered community designed by an architecture group at the University of New Mexico.
The EPA had rejected the idea but is facing new pressure from lawmakers and community members to reexamine it.
“I feel empowered with those people,” resident Edith Hood says of the university’s proposal. “I feel hope.”
Red Water Pond Road has seen little reason to hope for a long time. Starting in the mid-1950s, mining companies extracted about 30 million tons of uranium from Navajo lands. It was just down the road on a July morning in 1979 that an embankment broke on a uranium tailings pond, releasing 1,000 tons of waste that traveled more than 80 miles downstream through arroyos, creeks and rivers. The Church Rock Spill remains the largest nuclear waste spill in U.S. history.
Even four decades later, only scattershot mitigation has occurred. Residents, activists and some nonprofit groups have cited a variety of health concerns, including cancer and risks to pregnancy and newborns, related to uranium contamination here. No comprehensive study on the health effects from uranium contamination on Navajo lands has been done.
The Superfund site includes two waste piles that were once owned by Kerr-McGee/Quivira, which later became part of Anadarko Petroleum, and United Nuclear Corp., now owned by General Electric. The most immediate cleanup plan focuses on the latter site, with the EPA intending to move the mine waste to tailings piles just under a mile away but over the Navajo border.
The agency says it has offered voluntary relocation to some 75 Red Water Pond Road residents. Of the residents who have accepted, nearly four dozen have moved or are preparing to do so. Many describe the process as a painful dissolution of their village — like a real estate developer clearing out a neighborhood by picking off families one by one.
“Government is supposed to have cultural sensitivity training,” one woman said at a community meeting in September. “Where is that?”
In a lengthy letter in November to several New Mexico lawmakers, the EPA defended its actions to date as “consistent with all relevant laws, guidance and policies. We continue to seek collaborative solutions and appreciate the Community’s efforts to bring additional resources and perspectives to bear on the challenges posed by both short and long-term disruptions.”
The letter also explained that officials have tried to work with residents “in a manner that reflects our respect for the Navajo people, their cultural traditions and the entire Community’s concerns.”
Residents have twice proposed alternatives to the agency’s plan. The first involved construction of temporary homes on the adjacent Standing Black Tree Mesa, a few hundred feet above the village. Federal officials cited cost and agency housing standards in saying no. They also pointed out that the EPA does not operate in a vacuum and must rely on local and federal partners; the tribal utility, for one, said providing power and water to the mesa and making other infrastructure improvements would not be feasible.
That is when Hood reached out to the Indigenous Design and Planning Institute at UNM’s architecture school. The question was whether housing that met EPA’s standards could be built off-grid on the mesa by employing technology like solar power.
If no utility connections are needed, concluded Hood, a fifth-generation village native who once labored 2,000 feet below ground in the mines, “the ball will be in our court.”
Professor Catherine Page Harris, who teaches in the Landscape Architecture Department, has been heading the project ever since with graduate students and community members. The result draws inspiration from the Earthships in Taos, N.M. — solar-powered houses made of recycled material — and incorporates Navajo Hogan structures in a nod to the tribe’s traditional dwellings and ceremonial homes. Doorways are positioned to face the rising sun.
The design, supporters say, is both practical and symbolic. The community will not have to leave its ancestral home, and clean energy will power a village environmentally degraded by the mining industry.
“If you can cut off the IV drip, they don’t have much on you anymore, do they?” UNM graduate student Paul Ross noted on a drive last spring to Red Water Pond Road. The university’s involvement has continued; a class in the fall designed a community meeting center for the mesa.
Lawmakers have begun weighing in.
The community “is owed a culturally appropriate relocation plan that reflects the historical and familial connections to its ancestral homeland,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a statement this month.
Though the university group showed its early designs to residents in 2017, with federal officials present, the EPA says it never formally received them until New Mexico’s congressional delegation included them in a letter this fall. At a recent community meeting, according to Hood, an official softened the agency’s previous opposition and suggested the mesa proposal was not off the table.
Still, the EPA remains skeptical, citing issues related to cost, water, roads, sewage and Navajo land-use policies. Yet Page Harris and other supporters say UNM’s designs address such obstacles and meet agency standards. Her estimate runs about $3.7 million, including road improvements. Based on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calculations, the EPA’s pegs its relocation plan at $4.2 million.
The New Mexico Environmental Law Center appealed on Red Water Pond Road’s behalf to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, contending that EPA actions here are part of a pattern of disparate treatment of indigenous communities. The kind of relocation pushed in this case, it wrote, is an “untenable choice [that] often results in traditional family units and relationships being fractured.”
Nothing is going to happen quickly. Major cleanup work on the United Nuclear site is still at least seven years away; action on the other location is in even earlier stages. At hearings the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held in 2019, discussions on what to examine as part of the first site’s environmental review went for hours. Questions from residents devolved into an outpouring of heartache, betrayal and anger.
A few more residents have departed for Gallup, but the 68-year-old Hood is staying put — for now. As a leader of the local community association, she goes back and forth on how she feels the federal government has dealt with Red Water Pond Road. She sometimes has more complaints about interactions with the tribal utility and Navajo Nation leaders.
“We’re not asking for mansions, a castle,” Hood, still pushing the solar project, declared at one of the federal agency hearings. “I can just live in a one-frame house there, with a water barrel.”