In his sky-blue waters --radioactivity

The most obvious selling point, the great offering of the Four Corners area, where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah meet, is landscape. The red sandstone totems and gargoyle shapes of places like Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods have become cliches of old John Wayne movies. And sightseeing families, on thier way cross-country to the Grand Canyon or the West Coast, stop here to record with cameras the silent places where time seems frozen.

The lack of distraction is the draw here.

The skeleton of the earth is laid bare; an untrained eye can easily follow the geologic progression from mesa to butte to standing tower, and the erosion of great volcanic necks like Windwow Rock and Ship and Ship Rock, with their rubbled skirts of alluvium. The stillness is deceptive though; the whole Four Corners area is seen in a microsecond of geologic time, and if you could hold a time-lapse camera long enough on, say, the Six Shooter Peaks, you could see wind and water busy at crumbling the towers to small piles of stones on the desert floor.

Untill 25 years ago weather was the only big developer in this country. Even now there are few signs of man's busyness near the main roads: the occasional Navajo sheepherder, straggling groups of range cattle, the huge coal-fired electric plants near Page, Arizona, and Ship Rock, New Mexico. It is these power plants that give a clue to what is happening off the back roads of the Four Corners. And most of what is happening is energy.

Energy recovery is pervasive here and also relatively low-profile. Accidents like the catastrophic Church Rock uranium-tailings spill last summer are almost nonevents -- except for the people who live in the Four Corners.

Although the land around Church Rock, New Mexico, is a confusing checkerboard of private, tribal, and government land, not much is made of these nuclear mishaps because there aren't many people around to complain. Until companies like Peabody Coal, Kerr-McGee, and United Nuclear began scouting the possibilities, nobody took the land at more than face value. Most of the land belongs to the Navajos, and sheepherding and tourism formed the economic base.

Over the last few decades, through, energy developers have discovered that the land is rich in more than scenic beauty: all the big energy sources -- oil, coal, hydroelectric and uranium -- are represented in some degree.

At first it was easy to mine the land. The Navajo tribe was naive; tonnage royalties and leasing arrangements for surface and mineral rights all favored the prospecting companies. But that situation is changing. Under the leadership of Tribal Chairman Peter McDonald, the energy politics of the Navajo trive and the 25,000 square acres it represents are fast approaching Anglo toughness. Though Mr. McDonald wears silver and turquoise jewelry, his political savvy is akin to that of a street-smart Chicago ward boss.

Bargaining for the leasing of surface rights between the tribe and mining interests is becoming more and more a matter of power politics, and some Navajos think that Mr. McDonald has learned the white man's ways all to well. The flat fees obtained from land leasing go into a general pool, and Mr. McDonald and the council distribute the money as they see fit. Eastern tribal chapters in New Mexico's checkerboard area feel they should get a direct percentage of the leasing fees for their land. While energy income is fattening the tribal coffers, the mining operations are chewing up the land; and radical/traditional Navajos want some quality control here.

The flashpoint for this complex situation occurred last summer on July 16, when the uranium-tailings dam at Church Rock collapsed, and 95 million gallons of radioactive water doubly tainted with sulfuric acid poured down an arroyo into the Rio Puerco.

Because of its location in a high-population area, the events at Three Mile Island brought attention to the threat of nuclear accidents. But what happened at Church Rock has to be classed as the largest nuclear accident in our history. The effects of the spill are still being monitored: according to Gerald Stewart of the New Mexico Environmental Division (EID), the Rio Puerco usually runs no farther than Gallup, 10 miles away, during the dry summer months. Five months after the spill the river, flooded with the "hot" water, was still running. It had reached Sanders, Arizona, 40 miles downstream, and was making its way toward Holbrook, another 35 miles, and the confluence with the Little Colorado River. The river's radiation count was initially monitored at 7,000 times the amount regarded safe for drinking. Now the EID and the Navajo Environmental Protection Committee (EPC) say that the radiation is diluted, but contamination is still detectable all along the river.

When the flow reaches the Little Colorado -- and it is likely to with the spring runoff -- the contaminated water will be carried into the whole lower Colorado River system. The radioactive water will be further diluted by the millions of acre-feet of water that flow out of the Grand Canyon and into the Little Colorado. But really no one can calculate what the long-term effects of low-level radiation might be. The problems are multiplied for the residents of northwestern New Mexico: the Navajo EPC figures that a percentage of the dam-spill water will percolate into the ground, and when it hits the Mancos Shale it will be redirected northward into the aquifer system. And there it will remain for a few thousand years.

The company responsible for this overflow of water and tailings sludge is the United Nuclear Corporation, which runs one of the biggest uranium mining and milling operations in the area. Though the company has provided more than 800, 000 gallons of drinking and stock water, Peter McDonald complained at a hearing chaired by Senator Morris Udall that the clean-up of tailings waste wasn't completed until late September, almost 2 1/2 months after the spill.

The Church Rock tailings dam was only two years old when settling of the clay core caused fissures that led to the break. As long as there are built-in vagaries in dam construction, the placement of these dams along watersheds in ill-advised at best. So far, the only preventative measure taken to avoid a similar catastrophe is the EID's assurance that it will monitor any future dam construction and placement.

Though the Church Rock spill was a rallying point for antinuclear and Indian organizations, uranium milling operations are only half of the picture. The men who mine the yellow cake might as well be working in a giant X-ray machine with the switch turned on. And a 1975 EPA report cited that tailings from old uranium mines were being used, unwittingly, by Navajos to build their homes. The Navajo EPC is looking to get new homes built for these people or at least compensation for tearing down the old houses. But the residents of places like Cane Valley, Arizona, are still waiting.

It is unlikely that the uranium mines and mills will shut down: the politics of the Middle East are too tenuous and the US energy addiction too great to close down any options. Most of that mining will take place in the Southwest (right now New Mexico provides 46 percent of the US uranium supply, and the majority of that is mined on Navajo lands).

It is also unlikely that Peter McDonald and the tribal council would try to jettison a valuable income and a powerful negotiating tool by outlawing mining -- even if they could. (There has been talk, from time to time, of making parts of the Southwest a national sacrifice area for energy recovery.)

The best that can be hoped for is that the EPA, other environmental committees, and the energy companies themselves will adopt safe and sane ways of reaping the earth. If for no other reason, they owe it to the residents of the Four Corners, who never raised their hands to volunteer as guinea pigs.

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