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Cancer-Riddled Wind River Reservation Fights EPA Over Uranium Contamination

A story about the fight between the Wind River Reservation and the EPA about the high cancer rates there.

Kenny Slattery has lived on the Wind River Reservation for 51 years, and just across the street from the old Susquehanna-Western uranium mill tailings pile for that entire period of time. “They say there’s a cancer cluster in this area,” says Slattery. “I don’t know, but my mother died of lung cancer, and my father died of prostate cancer. My cousin’s husband died of esophageal cancer just a half-mile from here, and other people have died from cancer around this area too. Dogs have died of cancer. It’s strange.”

The site is just a few miles southwest of Riverton, the ninth-most-populated city in Wyoming. It has a long history of contamination, as well as a cloud of rumors. “People say there’s a one-eyed fish over here,” says Slattery as he points to the pond in question. “Just one eye,” he says again, then laughs.

It sounds funny, but over the years, officials have begun taking these kinds of stories very seriously. “We know of some of our tribal members down there who have suffered some real serious cancers,” says Wes Martel, Shoshone and Arapaho Joint Business Council co-chair. “Thyroid disorders and nerve disorders and respiratory disorders and babies being born with deformities and things like that.”

It’s stories like these that prompted tribal officials to contact Folo Akintan, senior epidemiologist for the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and acting director of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Epidemiology Center and ask her to lead an epidemiological study of the area. “One community member told me about seeing creatures with defects,” she says. “They saw a frog with more than four legs, they saw a snake with two heads, and so I had to tell them, ‘Scientifically, you have to take pictures to get this.’ So I gave them cameras and said, ‘Start taking pictures.’?”

Akintan also took a tour of the area. “By the time we went around that neighborhood, I could count on one finger how many [of the deceased] didn’t die of cancer,” says Akintan. “Practically all of them [who are over 50] had died of cancer or have cancer right now, and that was quite alarming.”

Over the next two years Akintan will collect scientific data to prove or disprove the stories that go back over 50 years. In 1958 Susquehanna-Western started processing uranium and vanadium ore in the Wind River Reservation using sulfuric acid to extract the elements from rock. The mill closed in 1963 but its sulfuric acid plant is still in production. But when the Susquehanna-Western mill closed, they left behind massive piles of contaminated materials commonly known as tailings. “Those tailings sat uncapped and unlined from the early 1960s until they were removed in the late 1980s in an uncontrolled manner,” says Sam Vance, an environmental scientist and tribal program manager with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “During that time, with the natural processes of rainfall, snow accumulation and snow melt, water percolated through those tailings and drove contaminants—uranium included—down into the ground and ultimately into the water table in that area.”

This happened at dozens of sites across the nation, with a good portion of them on Indian land. In 1988 the Department of Energy (DOE), the regulatory agency responsible for the site, found that soils, surface water and shallow groundwater were all contaminated with uranium, radium and thorium and started removing the materials from Wind River to a new storage location about 60 miles away in the Gas Hills area of Wyoming. The DOE then announced that its job was done and that the site would clean itself up naturally. “We chose flushing—or natural attenuation—as the remediation strategy at Riverton,” explains April Gil, Riverton site manager for the DOE. “I’ve got no doubt that that area is safe to live in. The surface aquifer is contaminated, but I believe that the flushing strategy the Department of Energy has adopted will eventually result in the contamination going back [down].”

In other words, the DOE expects that the site will be contamination-free 100 years from now.

In 2010, floods hit the reservation and the DOE recorded tremendous spikes in their monitoring wells, some as high as 100 times the maximum contaminant levels set by law. Art Shoutis, a consultant and macro-invertebrates scientist with the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission, says those sudden spikes pose a serious problem to the DOE’s expectation that the site will clean itself up in 100 years. “We just saw that after 20 or 30 years of monitoring, levels that the flood brought were higher than the initial ones,” says Shoutis. “Even a nonscientist can look at these graphs and understand that there’s no way [the DOE is] going to meet that 100-year natural-attenuation plan.”

That data is available on the DOE website—but to give a better sense of how some of the graphs look, imagine a heart-rate monitor on which the patient has flat-lined for a few minutes and then suddenly come back to life. Some are that dramatic. “In September after the flood last year, we had the highest levels [of uranium] ever measured in the lake: .522 milligrams per liter,” says David Haire, a consultant and water-quality scientist with the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission. “The [EPA’s maximum contaminant level for uranium] is .03 mg/L—so that’s several orders of magnitude over the maximum contaminant level for the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

However, Gil counters that the flood has actually increased the flushing rate. “What we’ve seen since then is what we expect: that the levels are again going back down,” she says. “Our understanding of what that flood did was mobilize some of the contaminants and actually accelerate the flushing that’s going on at the site.”

This outlook has done little to assuage community fears. Take for example the issue of the community’s water pipeline: It runs right through the uranium plume. “The Department of Energy acknowledged that the surficial aquifer was contaminated,” Haire says. “And they said ‘in order to prevent people from drawing this water up through a well, we’re going to provide a water system.’?”

And they did. That was in 1998, and the pipe that was put in the ground was made of hard PVC plastic, which has raised new concerns for tribal officials should the pipeline break. “When you’re in the pipeline, you’re a water molecule, you’re under pressure, you’re moving this way and it’s hard for that [contaminated] water to get in there,” Haire says. “The [radioactive contaminants] can come in, but they’re not under pressure like the pipeline is, so the pressure pushes out.”

In other words, with pressure, radiation has a hard time getting into the pipe—which is good, but if the pipe breaks, the pressure drops, and those contaminants can seep in. But while tribal officials are worried about this, the DOE says it’s not an issue. “The water would have to actually enter the pipe,” Gil says. “It’s not like the radiation would enter the pipe, it has to come in on a particle.”

“The concern is if that pipeline breaks and that water gets in there,” Haire says. “If that happens, there is a potential for someone to turn on their tap and get nothing but pure, contaminated ground water.”

“Yes,” Gil says. “But there are methods whereby they would go in—just like if you break a line in your front yard, and you got sand and stuff in your water—and they would flush the system before people would use the water from their taps.”

Wind River Environmental Quality Commission officials say the pipe has broken several times in the area over the last year, including

Micah McCarty, former Makah tribal chairman, will be Special Assistant to the President for Tribal Government Relations.

The reservation’s water supply runs right through the contaminated area.

a split down the middle that required a 20-foot section to be replaced, and it’s unclear if residents were notified of the break after it happened.

Then there’s another problem. “These [flood] data were not shared with the tribes or anyone [when they were released],” Shoutis says. “On October 27, 2010, we had a very important meeting with not only Department of Energy, but other agencies that we are asking for help with this site. So at this October 27 meeting, we still didn’t know about this flood data, and it wasn’t until the next morning, October 28, that the Department of Energy pulled out this report that showed these spikes and this data and told us that ‘we were afraid [the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission] would run to the press with this information and create a public panic.’?”

The meeting in question was held to work out a new agreement with the EPA and United States Geological Survey (USGS) to provide independent analysis of the site’s contamination levels. However, the DOE denies the allegation that information was withheld. “There was never any intent on the part of Department of Energy to withhold any information from them at any time,” Gil says. “What I did was deliver the report to them about a month early, and that report contained information from the flood. So this is a kind of misunderstanding on the part of the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission which I have tried to clarify on a number of occasions.”

But this sentiment isn’t just harbored by scientists at the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission; it seems to have filtered all the way up to the highest levels of tribal government. “[The Department of Energy wasn’t] really forthcoming, it was kind of forced out of them by some questioning and some discussions that were occurring between the Department of Energy and the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission,” says Martel. “That’s when they finally said, ‘Well, the spikes occurred in contaminants, but we didn’t want to release it because we didn’t want to create a panic.’ You know, that’s very disturbing and really gives the trust factor a black eye when you’re dealing with federal agencies that are supposed to be working in our best interest and with our concerns and needs in tune.”

In an e-mail from the EPA, officials state, “Having this data would not have significantly changed the meeting goals and discussions about the technical investigation. However, the impression that DOE was not immediately forthcoming about the data is clearly an issue for the tribes.”

As of September 30, the cooperative agreement to test and monitor the site between the Wind River Tribes and the DOE ended, but at this point, there’s no clear sense of when a second agreement will be signed in light of differences between the two entities.

“Well in the next six months, the short term, I hope we’ve got a meaningful cooperative agreement fully negotiated with the Department of Energy that upholds our concerns and the questions we have about this site and the contaminants that are in that area,” Martel says. “Ten years down the road I’d like to be able to assure everybody that the tribes have done everything in our power to evaluate the health and safety and contaminant levels on this, and that this community is a safe area to live and raise your children and have a family in. Right now I’m not sure we can say that.”

But that sentiment doesn’t sit well with community members at the site, like Slattery. “My mom died within a month and a half of when she found out she had cancer, maybe two months, and my dad, he went faster than my mom,” He says. “He was funny, very funny guy: He would say, ‘Oh, I don’t have cancer! What the hell you talking about!?’ and he was full of cancer. He went fast. I thought he’d be here a little longer then he was.”

According to tribal officials, at this moment the DOE, EPA, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Indian Health Service, USGS, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation—and a host of other federal agencies with enough acronyms to fill a gigantic bowl of alphabet soup are involved in the investigation. However, with studies, analysis and reports not due for up to two years, residents of the area will remain in the dark.

“It’s sad,” says Slattery. “It’s disgusting. And somebody is making those decisions. ‘We ain’t living here, we ain’t breathing this air.’ Why isn’t [that guy] over here sucking the air, drinking that water? He’s letting these Indians, the most precious people on the earth, do it, and it’s killing them.”