Tiny little Panna Maria, Texas has two Firsts in the Nation.
Number 1 …Panna Maria is THE oldest Polish settlement in the United States. Note…it is not just the oldest Polish settlement in Texas. It is the oldest in the entire United States. In 1854, Polish settlers from Silesia finally landed in Karnes County. They had fled Poland due to poverty but also because the Revolutions of 1848 had been squelched.
Panna Marie also boasts one of the twenty Painted Churches in Texas. Check out YouTube. People make the route of the seven Painted Churches and it makes quite a quaint tour of Central Texas. You can always add Panna Maria to make an 8th stop on the tour.
Panna Maria is mostly agricultural. Not the monoculture of wheat and cotton and cattle, but real agriculture. Family farms. Diversified farming. The way it is supposed to be done.
Panna Maria also hosts an amazing Polish Heritage Museum, which highlights not only famous Polish Texans, but also famous Polish scientists and explorers. One of those scientists is Marie Curie, who first isolated and named radium. She also coined the term radioactivity, and sadly, was killed by that radioactivity that she was experimenting with.
Sadly, a number of Panna Maria residents were also dying of exposure to radioactivity in the 1980s due to sloppy uranium mining.
Which leads us to…
Number 2… Panna Maria boasts the largest uranium mine tailings dump in the world. Well, it’s not actually in Panna Maria, but it is pretty close. The uranium mine tailing dump is in the ghost town of Deweesville.
Currently, Panna Maria is going through a fracking boom. If you make the trek to the sleepy little hamlet, you can see the flares everywhere. A lot of the citizens aren’t happy about it. They complain of too many trucks on the highway. They worry about the potential pollution of the fracking. The oil engineers say not to worry, but…
Some of the residents have been through this before. Before the fracking boom, Panna Maria went through an earlier uranium boom. The same band of geological strata that trapped the fracked gas and oil also trapped uranium.
The presence of uranium was discovered in 1954, oddly enough, the century celebration year of Panna Maria.
Uranium mining provided jobs. It also allowed for a certain amount of patriotism. Panna Maria was doing its bit to help keep American safe from the Russians. They were also contributing to the electrification of the country. Because while some of the uranium was turned into bombs, most of the mined uranium was used as fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.
In the 1980s, Panna Maria started saying No.
Wait a minute, they said, “Our cows are dying. We are dying. We are getting cancer.” Patriotism can only go so far.
No one listened.
Father Frank Kurzaj was a new pastor in town. Although born in Poland and ordained in Poland, he was assigned to Central Texas, and Panna Maria and its painted church became one of his parishes.
Father Frank had grown up in Silesia, which is a huge coal mining area. Father Frank knew about the troubles of mining and the health problems of miners and he knew about governments that didn’t care about the health of the population.
Father Frank listened to his parishioners. Because he had experience with inattentive government bodies, he started organizing. And once he had a group of concerned citizens, he started the attempt to get the state government involved.
The Health Department ignored him. The State Health Department had jurisdiction over regulation of uranium mining.
Hightower and the Texas Department of Agriculture listened. They paid to their Texas rural citizens. And they helped.
Bob King told us about the situation in his interview with PHIT for our Legacy Project.
“We were getting farmers and ranchers coming in concerned that they were seeing deformed animals or they were worried that they were smelling chemicals that were associated with the disposal ponds coming up in wells all around the disposal pond, and the mill tailings, the dust was blowing and everybody was freaking out.”
“And I got assigned to figure out what to do about this.”
He had no regulatory authority, but he found a way.
“I realized we had these agricultural labs that we were using for checking milk and checking grains and doing all these other things. Turns out, they could measure radioactivity. So we went through and took water samples of all the ranches and farms that complained down around the areas where the mining was taking place.”
That study found significant levels of radioactivity. He told the Health department he was going live with the announcement with or without the Health Department. Eventually they caved in.
“The Health Department shut the thing down, they committed to a study, and it never reopened. It never reopened.”
It took them a long time to clean it up, and ultimately the Federal Government kicked in some money.
More on the giant mausoleum in the next blog.