Hopi Villages Threatened by Uranium Plume
By S.J. Wilson

Over ten years of independent testing have clearly demonstrated that a former BIA-operated landfill near the Navajo community of Tuba City and the Hopi villages of Upper Moenkopi and Lower Moencopi has caused uranium contamination that has leeched into the sole-source of drinking water for these communities.

Despite the immediate threat to the villages, a recent Five-Year Plan was accepted by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (GCOGR) that basically seeks further study of the site, a plan the Hopi has rejected.

A plume of uranium contamination has been tracked by monitoring wells since the closure of the site, and is now less than half a mile from the villages, according to Nat Nutongla, director of the Hopi Tribe's Water Resources Department.

A map of the plume shows that contamination has reached a narrower section of the aquifer, and will therefore travel much more quickly.

"Groundwater knows no boundaries," said Nutongla, who views the contamination as a "runaway plume."

"We don't really know what the actual threat is," said Sharon Masek Lopez (GIS, Water Resources). Lopez said 'The contamination plume has had 40 years to develop—the aquifer will take ten years to pump and treat."

The Rare Metals mill was the only uranium mill in Arizona, operating from February 1956 to May 1962; El Paso Natural Gas Co. bought the mill in 1963 and operated it until its closure in 1996. Approximately 800,000 tons of ore were processed through the mill during its lifetime.

The Rare Metals site is located about six miles northeast of Tuba City. The Hopi Tribe inherited the site in 1992 when the Ninth Circuit of Appeals split the 1934 reservation land.

Part of the problem in dealing with the site has been federal insistence that the contamination is naturally occurring.

Independent reports, including one prepared for the Hopi Tribe by Daniel B. Stephens and Associates (DBSA), indicate otherwise.

"The geologic and geochemical conditions at Tuba City Landfill do not generally favor naturally occurring uranium in the concentrations observed at the landfill" according to the DBSA report. The report goes on to reveal that data reveals a "striking similarity" between water quality data from TLC and data from contaminated groundwater at Rare Metals.

Lopez explained the two methods for uranium extraction - sulfate and carbonate extraction - leaving a distinct footprint.

"There is no way you would see this type of concentration naturally," Lopez said. "The isotopic signature produced from sampling does not match the natural geology - it is consistent with processed uranium."

The landfill was closed in 1997, and remaining surface waste was covered by about a foot of drift sand as a "cap," an insufficient measure, according to Nutongla - who expressed his frustration that while the federal government has the ability to take immediate action, it leans towards further testing - while stating that there is no funding available for a cleanup.

Federal agencies admit that immediate action is an option in the Five-Year Plan prepared by the Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Indian Health Service (IMS), Department of Interior (DOI) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

"If the EPA determines that an Imminent and Substantial Endangerment exists at this site, EPA can use Superfund enforcement authority to require the potentially responsible parties to conduct a response action," the report reads.

In a meeting with with staff member of the HCGOR, Tribal Chairman Benjamin Nuvamsa and other tribal representatives expressed their disfavor with the Five-Year Plan. Nuvamsa pointed out that the problem was created by the federal government, and though it has the ability to solve the problem, historically it has demonstrated a pattern of inaction.

Nuvamsa delivered the position of the Hopi Tribe - aside from some testing to design a containment and remediation system, no more testing is necessary, and that Clean Closure must be immediately undertaken. Further, emergency action must be taken to contain the plume and treat the groundwater.

Representatives of the village from Upper Moenkopi and (Lower) Moencopi reiterated that the N-aquifer is the sole source of drinking water and an important cultural resource. The villages supported the tribe's demand for immediate and clean closure, insisting that village members do not want the threat the contamination poses, or the constant worry village members suffer,

In March, Nuvamsa outlined tribal concerns and demands to Jerry Glidner, Director of the BIA, in a seven page letter.

Nuvamsa criticized the Five-Year Plan as falling far short of adequately addressing environmental and public health concerns.

"[The Plan] gives no real indication of when those concerns will be completely addressed, nor the cost of doing so," Nuvamsa stated.

Nuvamsa also noted that the Plan does not list the regulatory mandates for site closure and remediation, nor did it recognize the Hopi and Navajo Nation's 13 year concerted efforts to adequately clean up the landfill and water contamination.

"The Hopi Tribe is deep disappointed by the agencies' refusal to recognize that an imminent threat to Hopi water supplies currently exist,” Nuvamsa said. "To be sure, EPA has found 'imminent threat’ under much less dire circumstances than those present at the Tuba City Dump... The Hopi Tribe believes unequivocally that rapid interim action is required."

Nuvamsa objected to unclear language in defining what interim remedial actions are available.

"Conduct interim remedial measures' could simply mean installation of a fence and removal of surface garbage, which is exactly what BIA indicates later in the plan," Nuvamsa said. Further, the plan should clearly reflect BIA's clear responsibility for the landfill, having opened and operated the unsupervised dump.

”The Hopi Tribe is aware that BIA has conducted a potentially responsible party (PRP) investigation, but has not yet shared the results of this investigation with the tribes," Nuvamsa said.

Yet another shortcoming of the plan is the BIAs ability to establish sufficient closure funding to meet its regulatory responsibility as the dump operator, Nuvamsa pointed out, which the tribe estimates at $33.5 million.

"The Five-Year Plan should establish the funding necessary for the federal government to meet its regulatory and trust obligations,” Nuvamsa said.

We have more than ten years of data and water quality information that we fee! is sufficient to begin site remediation," Nutongla said. "We have adequately demonstrated that there is a problem. We don't want any more money wasted on needless studies. Let's use available monies to address the problem now."

Upper Moenkapi, Moencopi, Arizona (NFIC)

© News From Indian Country June 23, 2008