Radioactive water near Hopi springs

By Cyndy Cole
Arizona Daily Sun, March 19, 2007

Two Hopi villages and their wells lie in the path of a radioactive plume of water.

A plume of radioactive water is moving toward two Hopi villages, threatening to contaminate wells and spring-fed drinking water for about 1,000 residents.

Nothing has been done to contain or remove the waste.

Hydrologists, geochemists and consultants have said the radioactive waste appears to have been taken from a Cold War-era uranium milling site near Tuba City and buried at a public dump 1 mile east of the communities.

The villages of Upper Moenkopi and Lower Moencopi have seen levels of radioactive uranium in their ground water that appear to be above normal for the area, though these levels are still well within drinking water standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hopi water managers fear these readings are a sign the leading edge of the radioactive plume might already be hitting the villages' groundwater supply.

"It's a matter of jeopardizing people's lives" if nothing is done, said Harris Polelonema, community service administrator for Lower Moencopi.

Everyone's trash heap

Tuba City's dump was opened by the Bureau of Indian Affairs a mile east of town. It was used for more than 40 years until it was covered with sand in 1997. Situated on the boundary marking Hopi and Navajo lands, the dump was a disposal site for medical waste, animal carcasses, paint, batteries and tires, nearby residents said in interviews.

"We have no paper record of what's actually in the site," said Lynelle Hartway, an attorney working for the Hopi Tribe.

This makes it difficult to assign responsibility for the estimated $23 million cost of removing contaminants thoroughly, which is what both tribal governments want.

Test wells at the dump show uranium levels up to 10 times higher than the level the EPA considers safe for drinking water. This uranium plume appears to be moving south and west toward Upper Moenkopi and local washes.

If the villages' water and the Navajo Aquifer were to become contaminated, the uranium could bioaccumulate in produce that the Hopi people depend on and in natural vegetation consumed by the livestock, researchers fear.

"While the problem isn't too dramatic based on concentration, the cumulative effect over time could be," said geochemist Bill Walker, who analyzed the site.

No one's responsibility

People working for both tribes have been seeking to have the dump cleaned up and the radioactive water pumped out, but they have made little headway over the years.

The Department of Energy won't clean up the dump because the Navajo Nation didn't raise the issue soon enough and because it contains much more than just radioactive waste.

The tribe should have raised the issue before the department's congressional authority to conduct cleanups under the Uranium Mill Tailings Remediation Act expired in 1998, the department told Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. in letters.

And the EPA has been hesitant to designate the dump a federal cleanup site, because it isn't an immediate danger.

"The emergency response office decided there was not an emergency and immediate risk to the public," said Andrew Bain, EPA's remedial project manager for Superfund in the West.

That leaves open the possibility of trying to bill cleanup costs to the company that merged with Rare Metals Corporation: El Paso Natural Gas Company.

Building a case

Some EPA and other government officials have suggested the radioactive waste in the dump could not be the result of uranium milling operations just a few miles down the road. Or perhaps, they said, it occurred naturally.

But during a geochemical analysis at the dump, Ray Johnson and Laurie Wirt, of the U.S. Geological Survey, found similarities between the uranium found in the dump and the types of ore milled at the nearby Rare Metals Corporation uranium mill.

Wirt died in a boating accident in 2006.

Walker, the geochemist and consultant, has found that the geology around Tuba City is "highly unlikely" to host uranium deposits, meaning it doesn't form there naturally.

Instead, he's also found evidence linking the radioactive plume in the dump to the chemicals used in the milling process at the Rare Metals mill.

"We've got fingerprints and good, solid data," Walker said.

But the person the EPA has assigned to work on this site, Carl Warren, isn't convinced the radioactive plume poses a threat to human health.

Nor is Warren certain there's any connection between what's in the radioactive dump and the uranium that was processed at Rare Metals.

Neither is the Department of Energy -- the agency usually responsible for cleaning up radioactive waste left over from wartime weapons production.

"The DOE did not find any evidence that would support the allegations that Rare Metals Corporation disposed of contaminated equipment or uranium mill tailings at the Tuba City landfill," it said in a letter to Shirley. " ... DOE believes that the ground water contamination discussed in your letter is not from the former mill site but is from the Tuba City landfill or some other nearby source."

Giving up the springs

The villages of upper Moenkopi and lower Moencopi live differently, but share the same water sources that naturally flow out of the ground.

Upper Moenkopi has electricity and running water inside the homes.

Lower Moencopi has electricity in a few homes. The stone and mortar houses lack plumbing because the traditional property owners elect not to install most utilities.

Lower village residents get water by going outside to a handful of faucets hooked up to gravity-loaded pipes fed by springs.

On a sandy road in the upper village, a metal pipe sticks out of a hillside spring, "Susungva," under a large tree. It pours clear, cold water into a basin of stone, next to a valley where Hopi farmers plant their fields every year. It's common to stop here and take a mouthful straight from the pipe.

"Even those that have running water in their homes, they still like to drink that spring water," said Chiropractor Alan Numkena, the lieutenant governor of Upper Moenkopi.

Upper Moenkopi has drilled wells to tap the deeper Coconino Aquifer as an alternative water source, but the villages need a $1.4 million reverse osmosis treatment system to make the water potable due to salinity.

There's no funding to pay for the treatment system, said Wilbert Honahni Sr., an economic development specialist with the Moenkopi Developers Corporation, a non-profit. And in a village where two to three families sometimes share a house, there are many other competing financial priorities.

There are going to be house-to-house surveys, interviews about the dump and public meetings for these residents in the months to come. Every fact must be documented in the political attempt to gain funds, excavate the contaminants of the dump and pump out the radioactive plume.

More test wells are pending near the dump, to see how far the uranium contamination has traveled. The village drinking water will be tested routinely.

"We tell them," said Hartway, the attorney for the Hopi Tribe, "that we will do whatever we can to know exactly what is in their water."

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 at

Public meeting on Wednesday

The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency will be hosting an open house at the Toh'Nanees Dizi Chapter House in Tuba City on Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mountain daylight time, to answer and take questions and receive historical information.


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.