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The Curse of the Yellow Powder
Is it possible to restore a landscape damaged by uranium? Ask the Navajo in New Mexico.
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.
On our way to his house, Nez pointed out a notch in a bank of yellow grassland at the head of an arroyo. That’s where the Church Rock uranium mill tailings dam broke in 1979, releasing over 1,000 tons of radioactive wastes and millions of gallons of highly acidic water into the Puerco River, an intermittent stream that flows toward the Colorado River. The Church Rock dam failure was the largest radioactive release in U.S. history, by volume — larger than the Three Mile Island disaster the same year.
Nez’s house was upstream of the breached dam but the ground around it was contaminated by dust drifting off of the mountainous piles of waste rock from two nearby uranium mines, which have been out of production for almost 30 years. Nez believes that the continuous exposure has made him and his family sick. His whole family suffers from respiratory problems, he says — himself, his five children, and his seven grandchildren.
For years, he and his neighbors fought for a clean-up, he says, but nothing happened. Finally, in 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informed them that their situation was an emergency. Radiation levels at Nez’s home measured up to ten times higher than normal background levels for the area.
Nez recounts, “The U.S. EPA says due to the human risk factor, get the people out. And they tell us, we’re going to move you out permanently, relocate you permanently. We say no. And the reason we’re saying no is… our culture, tradition. Our grandma and grandpa, they were here. So we don’t want to leave that land.”
The Navajo had been forced off of this land once before, when they were marched into exile by Kit Carson’s troops in 1864. Four years later, the tribe regained a portion of its homeland. Although many people had died, and their homes, livestock, fields, and orchards were destroyed, the Navajo returned to start over in the land between their four sacred mountains. Now, Nez and his community were unwilling to abandon their land. Clean it up, they demanded.
But what I saw in Navajo country made me wonder how much you can really clean up after uranium, if contaminants get into the soil, the water, the air, the plants, the animals.
I was particularly interested because of the debate over allowing uranium mining and milling (processing) in Virginia, my home state. Obviously, the circumstances are very different. Uranium was dug out of Navajo lands starting in the 1940s, in the rush to build the first atomic weapons and then to build up a Cold War arsenal. Virtually no effort was made to protect workers, the environment, or the community — although radiation was known to be dangerous. The tragedies endured by the Navajo resulted from uranium operations using crude, out-of-date methods, with little regard for human life or health. Times have changed.
Still, it’s worth noting what uranium can do to a landscape, what we can fix, and what we can’t.
When I met Nez, he and his family were living in a hotel to avoid inhaling hazardous dust stirred up by the excavation. He believes that when the soil removal and reclamation of nearby mines is done, his land will be safe to live on — but it’s unclear where the contaminated material will ultimately go. For now, the EPA’s plan is to move it down the road, to the top of an unlined pile of mill tailings near the site of the Church Rock dam failure.
Nez, who works as a Community and Environmental Health Specialist with the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), wants the radioactive wastes to be hauled to a repository in Idaho – but the EPA has determined that relocating these wastes is unnecessary and too expensive. According to Chris Shuey, Director of the Uranium Impact Assessment Program at SRIC, hauling the wastes to Idaho would shoot the cost to reclaim one of the mines from an estimated $45 million to $293 million.
There are 520 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation.
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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.”
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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.”
In Virginia, uranium facilities might benefit from improved standards and technology, but they would also face unprecedented challenges, due to the wet and volatile climate. In the U.S., uranium has been extracted almost entirely in arid Western states. Virginia’s average annual 40+ inches of rain and frequent heavy storms — along with disarming recent phenomena including tornados, derechos, “superstorms,” and earthquakes — could make it more difficult to prevent the escape of contaminants from vast waste piles, for all time. (Or at least for 1,000 years, which is how long U.S. regulations aim to contain mill tailings. The actual half-lives of uranium and many of its decay products are unfathomably long—up to 4.5 billion years.)
Shuey explained that uranium, when left undisturbed in the ground, is fairly stationary. But when it’s brought up and exposed to air, the mineral oxidizes, going from U4+ to U6+, a version that is highly soluble in water.
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The scientist switched gears to tell me a Navajo legend.
The story goes that when the People were entering this world, they had a choice between two yellow powders. One was life-giving corn pollen; the other, in the legend, is unspecified. Shuey said, “They could choose the way of the corn pollen, which is balance and harmony, or they could choose the way of this other yellow stuff, which is the way of disharmony, imbalance, and upsetting.” Uranium, which is ground into a yellow powder, acts that way, he said.
“When you take this stuff out of its resting place, it moves easily in the environment, especially in water, and you can’t put it back in the earth,” he said. “Now… even if it’s managed in some state-of-the-art facility, it’s still got to be managed. Anything in the nuclear fuel cycle has to be managed because it’s full of impact. Setting aside all of the risks — all of the health risks, all of the environmental risks — that management requires societal dedication, including financial resources. And it will never be put back.”
Rose Jenkins, a native of Madison County, Va, is traveling across the American West. Until recently, she had served as senior writer and editor at the Piedmont Environmental Council. Read more of her writing at http://www.waystohere.com/ .