Alibi V.20 No.19 • May 12-18, 2011 ››
7 Deadly Sins of New Mexico
Julia Minamata juliaminamata.com
I love exploring our beautiful state and learning about its endlessly fascinating history. But it's important to remember how quickly the Land of Enchantment can become the Land That Can Frigging Kill You. In order to help you readers preserve your lives and limbs, I've compiled a list of my favorite seven places and activities that you should absolutely avoid at all costs.
Please read carefully.
Here’s an interesting fact: The New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department has a whole program dedicated to preventing people from wandering into abandoned mines and getting seriously injured or killed. Now, it’s easy to see why exploring old mines is dangerous: cave-ins, poisonous gases, gaping pits, rotten ladders, piles of explosives, mazes of tunnels that can leave you lost forever. These places are a smorgasbord of potential fatality. So the real question is, Why go there?
Seriously, if you’re out in the wilds of New Mexico and you come across a shaft leading deep into the recesses of the earth, just walk away. Nobody wants to have to haul your carcass up from some 85-foot drop that you didn’t know was there.
The Church Rock Superfund Site
In western New Mexico, right where I-40 enters the Navajo Nation, there’s a town called Church Rock. It’s a pretty place, featuring grand vistas that showcase the desert in all its glory, the towering spire of Church Rock itself and, of course, the beautiful Red Rock State Park.
It’s almost enough to make you forget how close it is to the site of the largest radioactive materials spill in U.S. history.
See, back in the ’70s, the United Nuclear Corporation operated a mill northeast of Church Rock that processed 4,000 tons of uranium ore daily. All went well until 1979, when a dam around the facility’s waste pond burst, releasing 1,100 tons of uranium sludge into the Rio Puerco causing radiation levels to skyrocket.
The disaster was worse than any other accidental radiation release in the United States; worse, even, than the Three Mile Island meltdown that occurred just a few months before.
Miraculously, and despite the fact that livestock that had drank from the river soon started dying, the residents of the downstream town of Church Rock suffered no serious health effects in the months immediately following the spill. However, since there were never any long-term studies on health in the area, the full effects on the population remain unknown.
The mill itself closed down in 1982. Despite years of decontamination efforts, the EPA notes there is still radioactive material on the site, and exposure can result in “harmful effects including anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth ... bone cancer and death.”
So, don’t go there.
Wandering Off the Trail in El Malpais
About 80 miles west of Albuquerque, El Malpais National Monument is an alien landscape of petrified black lava, collapsed sinkholes and networks of volcanic caverns. The park offers some of the most stunning hiking in central New Mexico. But it’s a harsh, dangerous place where it’s ridiculously easy to get to lost.
Many trails in the monument are only marked by loose pyramids of rocks that are hard to spot among all the other loose piles of rock on the lava flows. The farther you hike, the more everything starts to look the same. In fact, in mid-April, a search-and-rescue effort involving some 200 people combed the area for a day before tracking down a 68-year-old man who had gotten lost in the fields. And in September 2010, researchers discovered the bleached bones of two hikers who had disappeared eight years before. Numerous cases like these stretch back all the way to the ’30s, when a group of schoolteachers on a short hike wound up wandering for four days without food or water before finally being rescued.
So keep your eye on those pyramids, and bring plenty of water. And your GPS. And your cell phone.
Joining a Cult
For some reason, New Mexico seems to be home to more than its fair share of cults. Some of them are downright creepy and, in some cases, dangerous.
Take, for instance, the Aggressive Christianity Missionary Training Corps. Members of the sect, based in Cibola County, style themselves after a military outfit, refer to their leadership as “generals” and dress in uniforms. According to historian Mike Smith, in 2005, the group’s founder was arrested on assault charges. Police say he attacked two followers with a “homemade scythe.”
My advice? Just stick with agnosticism. It’s low-commitment and features few divinely inspired scythe attacks.
One of the downsides of living in a state for which the defense industry is so vital is that nuclear research and bomb-making have generated a lot of dangerous waste over the years. And it’s got to go somewhere. If you’re living in New Mexico, at some point you’ve probably heard of the controversial Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where radioactive waste is stored some 2,000 feet underground. But WIPP has only been around since 1999, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory has been generating waste for more than half a century. Where did it go before WIPP?
In 1957, LANL built an official nuclear waste disposal site on a mesa near White Rock, only 19 miles from Santa Fe, and christened it Area G. (Don't ask what happened to waste before it was built). Although the site is only used for low-level material today, the lab originally used it as a dumping ground for all manner of radioactive stuff, including plutonium waste. Unfortunately, there was little effort made to prevent the site from succumbing to the effects of erosion. As a result, traces of plutonium have been found in runoff and sediment nearby, and even in the vegetation.
The good news is that in a post-9/11 world, it’s unlikely that you could meander anywhere near Area G without being shot.
The Carlsbad Sinkhole
Everyone should visit Carlsbad Caverns at least once, but there’s one cave that could prove a deadly surprise for those unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place is in the town of Carlsbad itself, at the intersection of U.S. Highway 285 and U.S. 62/180, and the wrong time is ... well, nobody knows for sure.
But there’s a good possibility that intersection could be swallowed up in a sudden sinkhole collapse that would take down cars and nearby buildings. Although state officials aren’t absolutely sure this will happen, they do know that the road is sitting right on top of an enormous man-made cavern, the result of a decades-long brining operation.
After a similar brine well collapsed in nearby Artesia (away from any inhabited areas), state regulators realized they had a serious problem on their hands. However, aside from installing alarms to warn city officials of an imminent collapse and running tests from time to time, nothing has really been done about the problem yet.
For now, go check out Carlsbad Caverns and have a nice time. But if you’re going through the town of Carlsbad itself: drive carefully.
Petting a Cute, Friendly Prairie Dog
We love our prairie dogs. We really do. What with their plump, golden-brown bodies and little villages and piping barks. But if one of the buggers comes sauntering up to you at the edge of the Best Buy parking lot and gives you its best “scritch-me-behind-the-ears” look, just run the heck away.
Because those little bastards carry the plague.
Yes, that plague. The Black Death that rampaged through medieval Europe. Fortunately, medical science has made the disease much less dangerous, but it’s still out there, it can still kill you, and it loves New Mexico.
Usually, it only affects wild animals, but sometimes it spreads to humans, especially when a deliriously ill squirrel or prairie dog gets close enough to a person for their fleas to leap onto the unsuspecting nature lover. Next thing you know, the victim's got the high fever, bloody phlegm and swollen, painful lymph-nodes that indicate bubonic plague.
Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that only 10 to 15 cases occur in the United States annually, and New Mexico represents about half of that. But just leave the prairie dogs alone. Do you really want to be one of the people who gets the plague this year?