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Extra Testing Being Conducted for Wind River Reservation Uranium Contamination

A uranium-contaminated site in Riverton, Wyoming, on the Wind River Reservation is being subject to a new set of groundwater tests to supplement the bi-annual sampling the Department of Energy (DOE) conducts on the site in the wake of 2010 floods that caused a spike in contaminant levels.
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A uranium-contaminated site in Riverton, Wyoming, on the Wind River Indian Reservation is undergoing a new set of groundwater tests this week, to complement the semi-annual sampling that the Department of Energy (DOE) already conducts on the site, in the wake of 2010 floods that caused a spike in contaminant levels. Uranium contamination has long been an issue on the reservation, whose residents have what many of them consider to be high rates of normally rare cancers. The Riverton site was home to a Susquehanna-Western uranium processing mill from 1958 to 1963; when the mill closed, it left a slew of waste, or tailings, directly on the land. Contaminants in the tailings, like uranium, trickled down through the sediment into the groundwater. The actual tailings were eventually removed, but the contamination stayed, and the DOE is now responsible for the site. After doing studies in the 1990s, the DOE determined that natural flushing of the pollution would be the cleanup strategy, and predicted it would take 100 years for the groundwater to return to background, or normal, levels. This strategy worked fine until 2010, when historic flooding of the Little Wind River washed over a large area near the former mill site. Until then, the DOE’s water testing results had followed the agency’s expectations, with contaminant levels dropping. But after the flood, the levels spiked dramatically, and it turned out that the model the DOE was using to make its predictions and evaluate progress of the flushing did not account for such a flood. The new testing, a one-time event, should help the DOE better understand the pollution plumes’ movements and provide data to update their 15-year-old model. “We wanted to very precisely understand the contamination, where it is under the site, and how quickly it’s moving,” said DOE site manager April Gil. DOE drilled 120 boreholes around the site for sampling. The Wind River Environmental Quality Commission’s (WREQC) Dean Goggles says it’s good that the DOE is doing additional work. But David Haire, who was a long-time contractor and water-quality scientist for WREQC, said there are some holes in the plan. “To me, they’re just covering where they think the plume is, instead of going out to the edges of it. We already know where the center is, so why do all the sampling there when we’re looking for the edges?” said Haire. He also insisted that DOE is not testing for enough contaminants, is not doing necessary sediment sampling and did not wait for an overdue USGS report that is supposed to outline data gaps in existing records. The DOE’s work plan includes soil sampling along with the groundwater tests. DOE’s Gil said she did not believe it was necessary to test for all of the contaminants WREQC requested but that “WREQC’s concerns had some validity with respect to additional analyzing frequency for sampling.” As such, in addition to the new, one-time testing, DOE will increase its testing to three times this year, and may do the same next year. WREQC’s Dean Goggles says every deal is a give and take and that the agency, which is entirely funded by the DOE, is doing the best it can. “It’s been a long 20 to 30 year, drug-out fight,” he said. “We’re doing what we can, that’s what it boils down to.” Gil said that unless the results from the one-time testing show something significant or unexpected, the plan will remain to let contaminants flush out naturally. DOE and WREQC’s cooperative agreement expired in 2011; the agencies are still negotiating what role WREQC will play in the site’s future monitoring. Testing results are not expected for several months. More on Wind River Reservation's uranium woes: Door Closing for Wyoming Lawmakers on Resolution Against the Department of Energy

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