Tainted water heads to Hopi

By Zsombor Peter
Gallup Independent, June 8, 2007

WINDOW ROCK On the rare occasion the Navajo Nation can convince someone else to clean up an old uranium mill or mine, it's usually the federal government that sues the former owner. But the old mill by Tuba City, Ariz., which the Navajo Nation has linked to a migrating plume of contaminated groundwater threatening both Navajo and Hopi water supplies, is different.

In a new twist on an old story, it's the former owner of the mill that's suing the government. The El Paso Natural Gas Company filed suit against the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington last month. It's accusing the department of shirking its responsibility for an unregulated dump and landfill that allegedly hold waste from the mill and may be leaking contaminants.

Immediate threat

The most immediate threat appears to be to wells serving the Hopi villages of Upper and Lower Moenkopi. According to Bill Walker, a private geologist on contract with the Nation, they lie right in the plume's path.

"Right now the drinking water is safe, but there is a plume moving toward those wells," he said.

El Paso's decision to step in isn't exactly altruistic. According to its suit against the Energy Department, the Navajo Nation has threatened to sue El Paso, which bought the company the Rare Metals Corporation of America that used the mill to make yellowcake for the government's nuclear weapons program in the 1950s and '60s. If El Paso gets the government to pay for the cleanup, it won't have to.

David Taylor, the tribe's lead attorney on uranium matters, put it more diplomatically. The Navajo Nation hasn't threatened to sue El Paso outright, he said. But from the discussions it's had with the company, he added, "it certainly could be implied."

The tribe asked El Paso what it planned to do about the sites. Its filing against the Energy Department, he said, "came out of the blue."

The tribe isn't necessarily disappointed with the suit. Taylor said it's considering joining in. And without taking the blame, El Paso is even considering doing some remediation at its own expense.

"So it does appear to be willing to take substantial steps out there," Taylor said, "without admitting liability."

It's certainly more than what the Energy Department is offering. It referred The Independent's call to the Department of Justice. Department spokeswoman Cinthia Magnuson said it would not comment until it officially responds to the suit later this month.

But in an April 2004, letter to Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., the Energy Department makes its position clear enough.

"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," writes Donna Bergman-Tabbert, the department's land and site management director.


She doesn't dispute the contamination of the ground water, but refuses to blame the landfill. Even if she did, it wouldn't do the Navajo Nation much good. Because the tribe didn't raise concerns about the landfill when the department was cleaning up the mill under the authority of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act, Bergman-Tabbert writes, it wouldn't qualify for the program anyway.

Walker is sure the connection between the mill and the dump and landfill exists. Digging through company records, he found out what chemicals Rare Metals and El Paso were using to produce their yellowcake. Back at the dump and landfill, he said, "we found those same chemicals ... so that essentially He also found disturbingly high levels of uranium, which has been linked to kidney failure, and radium, a known human carcinogen. Compared to "background" levels around the dump of 100 counts per minute, what should be occurring naturally, he said, "we were finding levels up to 20,000 counts per minute.establishes the link."

"Let me put it into context," Walker said. "It's so bad that in some places, if you stand (there) ... you're getting the allowable dose for a year in just a few minutes."


But the threat to the area's water supply is coming from the landfill, where Walker believes contaminants are seeping into the ground. He hasn't definitively linked that contamination to the mill just yet, but he's working on it.

In any case, that contaminated groundwater is moving toward Hopi wells. Walker worries it could also sink some more, into the Navajo aquifer, which feeds Tuba City.

"That aquifer serves thousands of people," Taylor said.

"They use it for basically everything," added Walker, "so if that water gets contaminated, they basically got a huge problem on their hands."

That water hasn't gotten into any drinking water supplies yet, but the plants overhead are drinking it, and livestock are eating the plants. "So any of those animals that were slaughtered could get contaminants into the body," Walker said.

As for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it's taken a stand somewhere in between. It's not denying a link between the mill and the dump or landfill, but it's not as convinced of that link as the tribe either.

When the agency last studied the site, said Andrew Bain, the EPA's remedial project manager for Region 9's Superfund Division, it found elevated gamma radiation levels "anomalous to local conditions." It wasn't enough to spur the EPA to action. But it was enough, Bain said, to convince the EPA to "revisit" the site and find out if it poses any "imminent and substantial endangerment," its benchmark for cleanup.

The landfill, meanwhile, is under the watch of Carl Warren, Region 9's project manager for waste management.

"I think there could be some linkage there," he said, "possible," but not at least not yet probable.

Warren is more tentative about a link between the landfill and the contaminated water below. Based on the date he's seen, he said, "whether that can be connected to the landfill hasn't been determined yet."

Both the EPA and Navajo Nation are planning more studies. Walker hopes to find out just how fast the underground plume is moving.

"We have to move fast this summer, because if that plume is moving faster than we are, we could be in trouble,"Once contaminated, underground water has proven notoriously difficult to clean, he said.


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html