Federal officials tell Hopi villagers that the $38 million price tag to remove uranium waste threatening local springs and wells is too steep to win congressional
September 07, 2008
VILLAGE OF UPPER MOENKOPI -- Hopi residents and tribal leaders demanded on Wednesday that federal agencies clean up radioactive waste threatening the water
supply for at least one Hopi village.
But federal agents attending an informational meeting here on the water contamination committed only to more planning and fencing off the area, but not
the cleanup sought by the tribe, citing the expense of up to $38 million. Tribal employees and a hydrogeologist working for the tribe said uranium waste
left in an unlined dump outside Tuba City threatened the shallow, spring-fed drinking water system for about 1,000 residents in the nearby village of Lower
"There is an imminent and substantial threat to human health and the environment," said Nat Nutongla, director of the Hopi Tribe's water office, on Wednesday
night. "... We can't just continue to look at more studies, more passing the buck, because that is what created this problem to begin with."
The water is currently deemed safe to drink by the EPA.
POLLUTANTS ON THE MOVE
But recent water data from monitoring wells recently showed more potential bad news for the neighboring village.
Hydrologists working for the tribe have also now found non-radioactive pollutants -- chlorides and sulfates -- moving to within 900 feet of the only water
wells for the Village of Upper Moenkopi, which are located much deeper in the ground.
They believe the only water supplies for both villages could become undrinkable within a decade or sooner, due to these pollutants leaching in from the
"There's really a disproportionate risk to the water supply here in the community," said hydrogeologist Mark Miller, who consults for the Hopi Tribe.
More than 25 Hopis and Navajos attended the meeting, repeatedly calling for all waste at the dump to be excavated and an end to further studies.
They brought in stories of skyrocketing cancer rates, and said the federal government could not fully appreciate the offense of water contamination in
a culture where water is considered more valuable than gold.
"If this drinking water source is contaminated, where else are we going to get that water?" asked Hopi Chairman Ben Nuvamsa.
Members of the public said the U.S. agencies responsible for opening the dump and approving the uranium mill must excavate the dump.
"If you found cancer on your body, would you put a Band-Aid on it, or would you go over there and remove it?" asked Leonard Selestewa, of the Lower Village.
NINE YEARS AND COUNTING
Federal agents representing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which opened the dump, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the cost of cleaning
up the dump might be too great to win congressional funding, but that they would fence it off and consider removing some spots of contamination.
"There is an immediate need to alleviate the potential threat to water sources from that landfill," said Carl Warren, the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's manager for this project.
The tribe was justified in being upset and distrustful of the federal government, Warren said, recounting a story.
"There have been nine-plus years where nothing has been done," he said.
The plan is to somehow close the dump, which is on the Navajo-Hopi border, by 2012.
One option is leaving the waste in place. Another is to excavate it, line the pit, and throw the waste back into it. Another is to begin a reverse-osmosis
system to treat the shallow groundwater, while fending off more of the dump.
Nothing has been decided for the long-term.
Congressional pressure to act is coming from a U.S. House committee on government oversight, which has asked federal agencies to come up with a plan to
remediate uranium mines and tailings piles on the Navajo Nation.
If the cost of taking all waste out of the Tuba City dump were estimated at $1 million, for example, instead of $12 million to $38 million projected, it
would have been cleaned up already, said John Krause, of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The U.S. Geological Survey and a consultant working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs argued the health risks of the landfill.
A U.S. Geological Survey employee said that a layer of mud, which may or may not have holes in it, could protect the Upper Village's deep drinking water
from uranium contamination.
But none of the agencies would promise the tribe that its drinking water would be safe from landfill-related pollution in years to come.
A consultant for the Bureau of Indian Affairs said the landfill was only one source of contamination.
COVERED, BUT NOT CLEANED UP
Michael Elmer worked at the uranium mill near Tuba City, Rare Metals, that is believed to be responsible for the waste in the dump.
The Rare Metals mill is now a contaminated site, perpetually in cleanup by the Department of Energy.
It's believed that items near the mill, including tailings, were also salvaged and used for home construction and rock driveways. That hasn't been confirmed.
While working at the mill, Elmer asked if he could go out and measure radiation at nearby Moenkopi Wash. The whole area was hot, he said.
"We didn't clean it up. We covered it up," he said. "And I'm afraid we're going to do the same thing here. We can't afford that."
Landfill dispute: A brief history
The Bureau of Indian Affairs opened the unlined Tuba City dump a mile east of town and used it for more than four decades before covering it with sand
and dirt in 1997.
In addition to other trash, the dump holds uranium waste that is 10 times more concentrated than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers
safe for drinking water.
The Navajo and Hopi tribes have asked various federal agencies to remove the waste for the past decade without any success.
The radioactive waste in the landfill is very similar to waste left over at a uranium mill a few miles away, according to chemical analysis from the U.S.
Other federal agencies, including the EPA, have disputed this relationship, saying the radioactive waste could have been blown in by the wind or come from
From 1956 to 1966, a uranium mill a few miles from the dump processed 796,489 tons of uranium ore from the Orphan Mine at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
and from a mine near Cameron.
The Department of Energy is responsible for decontamination at the uranium mill site, where water pollution is documented.
The Department of Energy has sent letters to the tribes stating that there is no proof the landfill was contaminated with radioactive waste from the uranium
Neighbors living near the dump have told the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency that they saw trucks from the mill dumping waste into the Tuba