Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Curse of the Yellow Powder

by Rose Jenkins
This fall, near Teddy Nez’s house on the Navajo reservation near Gallup, N.M., men in earth-moving equipment were scraping away the topsoil, up to three feet deep, which had been contaminated by radioactivity from abandoned uranium mines. In earlier phases of this project, starting in 2007, crews had torn out 100-year-old junipers and piñon pines and had clawed earth away from the remaining trees, which weakened them, even after replacement soil was trucked in. The machines had flayed hillsides, whose cover of flowering shrubs and fragrant herbs has yet to grow back. “It looks like a B-52 hit it,” Nez told me, recalling an image from his service in Vietnam.
Navajo territory extends over 27,000 square miles in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest. In this sparsely populated desert, approximately 30% of the population is not connected to a public water supply, so people drink from the sources available, including springs and private wells.
Out of approximately 375 Navajo water sources tested by various agencies, according to data compiled by SRIC, more than a quarter contain excess levels of contaminants that could derive from uranium operations — including arsenic in 17% and uranium in 10%.
In response, the EPA shut down three of the most contaminated sources. The agency is also working with local partners, including SRIC, to publicize warnings about hazardous water sources and to provide safe drinking water for thousands of homes. That addresses people’s immediate needs, but it doesn’t resolve the underlying problem — the polluted groundwater.
I asked the EPA if there was any chance the groundwater could ever be treated enough to be safe to drink.
“Our first goal is to make sure people are not being exposed to contaminated groundwater,” Rusty Harris-Bishop, an EPA spokesperson, told me. Before the agency could attempt to fix the groundwater itself, he said, it would need to see evidence that contamination derives from industrial activity and not from naturally occurring uranium. In that case, the EPA would weigh potential clean-up measures against criteria such as cost-effectiveness, protectiveness, and practicality. According to Harris-Bishop, the success of such measures, if implemented, would depend, in part, on how widespread the contamination is. More localized problems are likely to be resolved with more success.
If pollution from uranium sites gets into the environment, how does it affect people’s health?
Historically, the most obvious toll is that thousands of uranium miners who worked during the first boom, including over 1,000 Navajos, died of lung disease. Many other people, like Nez, believe that pollution from uranium sites has made them sick. But the link between exposure and illness can be hard to prove due to the complexity of factors that cause disease and limited research. Some people argue that exposure to uranium wastes is not as dangerous as many Americans assume. (See “The Uranium Widows,” by Peter Hessler).
A well-known set of studies by Dr. John D. Boice, of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, finds that living in proximity to uranium operations does not correlate with increased rates of mortality from cancer, except among miners.
Shuey, who holds a Masters of Public Health, notes that Boice’s research ignores a wide range of non-malignant health impacts, and points to studies that link uranium-related pollution to kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects. Shuey also argues that more detailed information about exposure — rather than just proximity — will yield more precise results. An ongoing study among the Navajo, by a team of researchers at the University of New Mexico, including Shuey, shows increased rates of health problems the closer people live to uranium sites and the higher their level of reported exposure.
In Yellow Dirt, journalist Judy Pasternak describes how thoroughly the leavings of uranium operations infiltrated Navajo people’s lives. Pregnant women drank water from lakes left by pit mines. Families built foundations and stucco walls out of the sandy mine wastes. Children played on tailings piles. Livestock grazed around the mouths of unreclaimed mines (and still do, according to a recent New York Times article). Pasternak chronicles case after case of lung cancer, stomach cancer, children with deformities — death after death.
The Navajo decided that they have reason enough to be done with uranium extraction, at least while so many problems remain. In 2005, the tribe passed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act, banning uranium mining and milling on their lands. The act states as its purpose: “to ensure that no further damage to the culture, society and economy of the Navajo Nation occurs because of uranium mining… [and] processing, until all adverse environmental, economic and human health impacts from past uranium mining and processing have been eliminated or substantially reduced.”
* * * * *
The Navajo Nation was the fourth uranium clean-up site I visited in the West.
In Cañon City, Colo., where a uranium mill shut down last year, the state of Colorado has estimated that a clean-up will cost $43 million, but it allowed the Cotter Corporation, which is responsible, to put up less than half of that amount in surety bonds, according to the Denver Post. Unless plans change, groundwater below the site will stay contaminated, leaving many private wells unusable.
Elsewhere in Colorado, the clean-up of uranium mills after the companies went bankrupt has cost taxpayers $950 million, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. At one of these sites, in Uravan, Colo., both the mill and the town around it were dismantled, buried, and permanently fenced off. That clean-up, or eradication, cost taxpayers $120 million.
The Atlas Mill, in Moab, Utah, which closed in 1984, is one of a few sites where tailings are being relocated, because contamination from them was leaching into the Colorado River, the source of drinking water for Los Angeles and other cities. A suitable repository was located just 30 miles away—but the clean-up will still cost taxpayers a solid $1 billion.
In theory, mining companies are required to post bonds that will cover the costs of reclamation and clean-up, even if a company ceases to exist. As Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI), which is proposing to mine the Coles Hill deposit near Danville, puts it: “[N]o uranium-mining company can extract an ounce of ore before posting surety bonds sufficient to restore the land it will disturb; for example, Pinion Ridge in Colorado is setting aside $11 million in bonds and Homestake Grants in New Mexico $33 million.”
But those amounts are a fraction of the actual costs of reclamation projects I saw underway.
Representatives of VUI did not respond to a request for comment. But on its website, VUI notes, “There have been many advances in safety features in all sorts of mining, including uranium mining, over the past several decades… At every level, stringent health and safety regulations exist and are enforced by federal and state authorities.”
The website describes the modern design VUI has in mind for the Coles Hill plant. All water flowing through the site would be “tested and treated as needed to EPA standards.” Tailings cells would be located above the 1,000-year flood plain, lined with clay and multiple synthetic liners, in beds of impermeable rock. “Advanced leak-detection systems” would further guard against any release of contaminants.
Shuey grants that a new, state-of-the-art uranium mill would be a vast improvement over previous models. But if a uranium mill managed not to pollute groundwater, it would be the first time, he said. Of the 52 mill sites in the U.S. (of which only one, in Blanding, Utah, is currently active), all 52 have led to groundwater contamination, he said.
The City of Virginia Beach opposes extracting uranium from Coles Hill because of the possibility that an accidental release could poison its water supply. But VUI says that’s virtually impossible. On its website it states: “Based on… regulatory standards and the characteristics of the Coles Hill site, the probability of a tailings release from the Coles Hill site is effectively zero, or 1-in-10,000,000.”

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