Radioactive water near Hopi springs
Daily Sun, March 19, 2007
Hopi villages and their wells lie in the path of a radioactive
plume of water.
plume of radioactive water is moving toward two Hopi
villages, threatening to contaminate wells and spring-fed
drinking water for about 1,000 residents.
has been done to contain or remove the waste.
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.
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.
water managers fear these readings are a sign the leading
edge of the radioactive plume might already be hitting
the villages' groundwater supply.
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,
"While the problem isn't too dramatic
based on concentration, the cumulative effect over time
could be," said geochemist Bill Walker, who analyzed
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
"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
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
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
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
Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607
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.