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Uranium-Tainted Water Still a Concern on Wind River Reservation

Residents of the Wind River Reservation are still vexed by uranium-tainted drinking water.

In early May, the Department of Energy announced that uranium at nearly twice the legal limit had been found in the tap water of four households on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The event marks another incident in a long and troubled history in the area, and new data showing that uranium in tap water has dissipated, does little to assuage fears in the community.

In 1963 the Susquehanna-Western uranium mill ceased operation on the Wind River Reservation. When it closed, it left behind nearly two million cubic yards of contaminated material—known as tailings—unlined, in the open, and subject to rain and snowfall for over 20 years. In 1988 the Department of Energy moved the contaminants to the gas hills and announced that the site would clean itself up after 100 years. But in 1998, the Department returned to the reservation telling residents that they shouldn't drink from their water wells for fear of contamination.

“That's where we used to get all our water: well water,” says Yufna Soldier Wolf, an Arapaho tribal member living about a mile away from the old, Susquehanna tailings site. She points to the now abandoned pump house on her family’s property. “This little house, we used to play in it. Like, that little ditch right there, when we were little kids, we used to play in all that water right there.”

Soldier Wolfs family was told not to drink their water around 1998, and the DOE eventually brought an alternative water supply to the area—plastic piping that runs from a clean source of water, through the contaminated uranium plume, to the Soldier Wolf's house and around 40 others.

On May 2nd the Department of Energy announced that fall 2011 testing results showed levels of uranium in four household taps on the alternative water supply at nearly twice the legal limit. On May 11, new test results were released showing those same taps, plus two more, had well below the legal limit. However, the find does little to assuage fears in the community. Yufna Soldier Wolf says there is a problem in the area, especially with the DOE’s pipe, and especially when it breaks.

“It would look like you dipped your glass in the muddy little ponds that you get after it rains,” says Soldier Wolf. “That's how it would look if you got a cup of water. Like we would run the shower or bath for the kids, sediment would come out of that too and just be in the tub or the shower.”

Soldier Wolf says when there's a pipe break, it's hard to know if it's safe to use the water. She says most of the time, the only way for residents to know there may be a problem is when they see workers out fixing or flushing the system.

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DOE officials would not speak on record. But last year, after test results showed that uranium spikes had appeared in the area nearly 100 times the legal limit as a result of the 2010 floods, the DOE’s April Gil, manager of the site, addressed whether breaks could allow contaminated groundwater and sediment to get into the pipe and eventually, into people's taps.

“I have talked to the lead engineer out there, Jerry Redman, and he says that this is not an issue,” said Gil. “Essentially water doesn't flow up hill. And I know people are very concerned about that, but we don't believe it's a real serious technical problem.”

But Gerald Redman, the director for the Northern Arapaho Utility Program, says it's not so simple. “Anytime you get a break in the line, there's always the potential for contamination to enter into the water system,” says Redman. “You always have to flush the lines after a break.

Redman says that notifying the public about a break isn't easy: “When you've got 400 customers and say 20 customers are affected, [it ’s hard] to drive to each home and tell them 'don't drink your water until we let you know again’. You could say it on the radio, and people could say 'well, we didn't listen to the radio’.”

On top of that, Redman says when there's a break, Northern Arapaho Utitlies have to get the water tested for chloroform or other contaminants before giving the residents the okay to drink.

“You can't just say 'hey, your water's safe, go ahead and drink it,' you have to have the lab verify it and it could take two to four days,” says Redman.

In 2005 a report commissioned by the DOE found contaminants in the form of radionuclides in the alternative water supply, and that same report concluded that contamination was most likely due to stale and stagnant areas of the system, or biofilm capturing and concentrating radionuclides. The final conclusion: flush the system every six months and if that doesn’t work, physically remove stagnant water and bio-film with a robot. Neither Northern Arapaho Utilities or the DOE could confirm if any of these protocols had been adopted.

“All we want is clean water. Is that possible? Are we going to be able to even get that?” says Yufna Soldier Wolf. “A lot of finger pointing goes around, but really, nobody wants responsibility for it and be accountable for what's happened.”