Navajo, Hopi challenged to prove radiation danger

Government not convinced radiation plume presents imminent threat

S.J. Wilson
The Navajo-Hopi Observer, November 04, 2008

UPPER MOENKOPI, Ariz. - "We are following the law; I can't apologize for the last 10 years. You must convince me that there is an imminent threat."

Jack Reever, Director of Facilities, Environmental and Cultural Resources for the Bureau Indian Affairs (BIA), delivered that challenge during a recent visit to the Hopi village that included a tour of sacred springs, farmland and the Tuba City Open Dump.

Lieutenant Governor Robert Sumatzkuku of Upper Moenkopi and Harris Polelonoma, community service administrator for Lower Moencopi, welcomed Reever and other dignitaries to a meeting and tour of the area.

Polelonoma described a meeting with Reever in Washington on Sept. 24 that included Hubert Lewis, Governor of Upper Moenkopi) and Nat Nutongla (Director, Office of Water Resources for the Hopi Tribe).

In his report to Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Oversight Committee,

Reever included statements that data do not indicate a hydraulic connection between water supply sources and the Open Dump, and do not indicate an imminent threat to drinking water wells or springs. These are statements that Nutongla and others insist Reever had promised not to make.

"We were dismayed and unhappy with comments made at the Department of Interior level," Polelonoma said. "Our position has been to go for clean closure, and Mr. Reever has not heard that position.

Reever apologized several times throughout the day, stressing that he had made a mistake in presenting the information.

"We plan to show Mr. Reever Susungva Spring - the source of Lower Moencopi drinking water. We hope that Mr. Reever can carry the message back to Washington ... [and] hopefully this will give you a better idea of what we are faced with."

Louise Yellowman, Coconino County District 5 Supervisor for the past 27 years, has a long history of battling the Rare Metals and open dump sites.

"Uranium tailings have been out there for many years," Yellowman told Reever. "We thought we took care of everything, but now we have found that there are hidden areas [and] contamination underground. Basically, we are starting all over and it will take ... Navajo and Hopi [communities to fight together]."

Dave Taylor, who is with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice has spent the last three years working on uranium contamination issues. "It's very clear that the Navajo Nation position is concurrent with that of Hopi - for clean closure," he stated.

At Susungva Spring

Various residents of the area spent a half an hour giving Reever a lesson in cultural sensitivity at the sacred Susungva Spring.

Polelonoma spoke of the many uses of the springs, explaining that the Katsinam use the spring to return to the sacred San Francisco Peaks, that children use the site to play, and that the water is used for drinking and irrigation.

Sumatzuki explained that water and environmental protection is the responsibility of Hopi and Navajo people.

Another resident informed Reever that at one time he had helped to clean up the BIA yard in Tuba City.

"We loaded up trucks full of paint, lacquer, refrigerators, stoves. We spent a whole summer throwing in trash from the BIA. It wasn't regulated. There were all kinds of things there - dead dogs, dead horses, and dead cows. All the businesses dumped there, too, including the hospital. In cities, people ... take care of these kinds of problems. Here nothing is happening."

Lopez assured the group that the water at the spring is still safe - but she fears that this is temporary.

"Here, uranium is only two to three parts to a billion; that is background level. Other wells nearby have 300 parts to the billion. This water is the equivalent of holy water, of the sacraments. Considering the uranium contamination and the gas storage tanks [nearby], this water is miraculous.

"As a medicine man, I know of the importance of water quality in the collection and administration of medicine," Max Yellowhair Sr. said. "We know that these springs are protected by spirits, and we want to keep the quality of the water; spiritually, mentally and physically. The water must be pure. I worry about the flow of underground water - what if it hits a fast place? As a medicine person, if we use contaminated water to treat sick people, we may worsen their health.

"I hope that you will take us at our word," Goldtooth continued. "Do what is necessary, Mr. Reever. People here are ready to go dig up the materials themselves and move it."

The eye of the storm

Standing on top of the dump, which is considered to be "capped," one cannot help but notice the thick litter of broken glass, metal parts and other debris that indicates that the cap is made of materials taken from the dump itself. Numerous tests have proven that the site is contaminated with uranium and other materials such as arsenic and E.coli.

Nutongla pointed out that the Department of Energy used the site as a dump, bringing their waste to the landfill.

"There is any kind of waste imaginable 15 to 20 feet deep below us," Nutongla said, warming to the subject.

He was interrupted by Reever, who cautioned all present, including the press, that details regarding the research must be discounted.

Nutongla countered, asking Reever what research should be discounted.

"I don't want to participate in an argument," Reever said. "I have agreed to sponsor technical discussion of questions you've asked. The reason I am here is that we have as much interest as the rest of you to come up with the right answers. We have a difference of opinion on the scientific evidence. It will depend on the USGS (United States Geological Survey) scientific process.

"We were all surprised last September when the USGS said it could not release its information to the public," Reever continued. "The USGS can't release its information until January, and we want to make sure people can stand behind the results."

"You have mischaracterized this issue by stating that there is not a problem here," Nutongla said.

"I've withdrawn those statements, and apologized to the Navajo and Hopi people. I made a mistake. I apologized," said Reever

Later, Nutongla pointed out that an apology did not change the fact that Reever's report had been circulated in Washington.

Lillie Lane with the Navajo Nation's Environmental Protection Agency challenged Reever's statement regarding the USGS.

"You say you will rely on the USGS? They have switched their position on whether the uranium is naturally occurring or man-made several times," Lane pointed out.

"We are not relying solely on the USGS," Reever responded.

Nutongla said that there are already expert opinions in support that an imminent threat exists, including those by Miller (who has studied the site for 11 years), Bill Walker PhD, and Henry Haven, who all have come to the conclusion that the uranium is not naturally occurring.

John Krause (Bureau of Indian Affairs, Western Regional Office) explained the significant differences in data that need resolution.

"Some say that the plume travels 100 feet a year; some say it moves 10 feet a year. There are differences in opinions as to the level of contamination. We need some level of solidarity of technical aspects," said Krause.

"Whatever comes out of this study, we will live with this," Reeves said.

"We don't want to live with it anymore," Goldtooth said. "Do we tell the people here that they have to live with it?"

Lane attempted to put a human face to the problem.

"Cecil Begay and his wife have a well that they used for a long time, now Cecil's wife is on oxygen," Lane said. "By the mesa to the North, where that cottonwood is, an old lady used a well contaminated by uranium. This is why we are frustrated. People have seen dumping all through here."

Goldtooth added that his mother had lived near the Rare Metals UMTRA (Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action) site; and at the end of the day she would see the uranium trucks washed off here, and that water seeps down.

At the 1:30 public meeting, Reever expressed his appreciation to the Hopi and Navajo Nations for inviting him.

"I wanted to look for my own perspective," Reever said. "We are moving into final closure. We are all working towards a common goal. I understand the deep emotion here, and we all agree that this should have been settled years ago. I learned of this problem, I gave you money, and we are moving forward. My purpose is to guide studies forward. I am not a scientist, but I know how to get things done.

"We are done testing, and will continue to monitor the data - the data is the data - I will convene a scientific summit and we will spend the time it takes. I will fund this. We need to narrow the difference of opinion of depth and distance rate, and the scientific summit will lead to the correct decision. If they determine there is an imminent threat, we will ask for the money to take care of that immediate threat."


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