Health problems ignored in uranium cleanup, residents say

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK, Aug. 25, 2011

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Area residents noted progress but expressed frustration at an Aug. 17 meeting held to discuss uranium cleanup efforts.

Community members told federal and tribal officials that groundwater cleanup at the Shiprock Uranium Mill Tailings Disposal Site represents progress, but they were frustrated about a continuing failure to assess the health impact of decades of exposure to radioactive dust in air and water.

The meeting, held by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Legacy Management and the Navajo Nation offices of Abandoned Mine Lands and Uranium Mills Tailings Remedial Action, included presentations on the history of the former mill and efforts to prevent contamination from spreading off the site and endangering people and animals.

"We recognize that many of you have health issues that you believe may be associated with exposure to radium, uranium or radiation from the milling and mining that took place on the Navajo Nation for many decades," said April Gil, OLM's Shiprock site manager, addressing about 60 people at the Shiprock Chapter house. "We're not health experts..."

Instead, Gil said, DOE's primary role is to maintain the disposal cell, a pit containing the mill tailings, clean up groundwater contaminated by radioactivity, and make sure people and livestock do not come in contact with any contaminants.

Groundwater contamination occurred in Shiprock after years of milling by two companies - Kerr-McGee Oil Industries and Vanadium Corporation of America. Kerr-McGee opened and operated the processing mill from 1954 to 1963 and VCA operated the mill until it closed in 1968.

In 1983, DOE and the Navajo Nation entered into a cooperative agreement to clean up the radioactive waste and tailings that spread radioactive dust across the community and contaminated groundwater.

By 1986, all tailings and waste left by the companies were stored in a "highly engineered disposal cell," which sits on a natural terrace 600 feet away from the San Juan River and a few yards above the water table.

In 2000, DOE added fencing and engineered structures to capture contamination, Gil added. The pit is covered with compacted soil and riprap, but is unlined, and monitoring wells show that groundwater contamination from the site is extensive.

"The groundwater contaminations include the entire flood plain and terrace areas within the Shiprock UMTRA site," said Madeline Roanhorse, Navajo UMTRA manager, during her presentation. "Water contamination is down to the Mancos Shale aquifer."

Drinking water safe

Roanhorse, whose office provides oversight and technical assistance to DOE, said Shiprock gets drinking water from Farmington Lake, a reservoir of the San Juan River located east of Farmington. The drinking water supply is not affected by the mill site, she explained.

To date, DOE has implemented a pump-and-evaporate system to capture groundwater contamination and has partnered with Diné College to research phytoremediation - the use of plants to remove contaminants - at the site.

The pump-and-evaporate system includes water sampling at more than 170 locations both on the terrace and floodplain, nine extraction wells, two collection drains and a terrace drainage channel diversion structure, which has removed and transferred a total of 540 pounds of uranium from groundwater into the 11-acre evaporation pond.

DOE has identified seven contaminants - ammonia, manganese, nitrate, selenium, strontium, sulfate and uranium - it tests for in wells of varying depth.

The progress report left many in the crowd frustrated that the government has not shown similar interest in measuring the health impact on area residents from so many years of exposure prior to the cleanup.

Attendees asked panel members why health assessments were not a priority and wanted answers on the status of any health studies.

"It seems like you can't separate environment and health, they go hand in hand," said Gilbert Badonie, 54, of Gadii'ahi, N.M. "There are a lot of questions and we're looking for some answers."

Baadaani Dahaana III, of Shiprock, said he suffers from bone disease and attributes his sickness to the disposal site, which is next to his residence.

"My body is deteriorating," Dahaana, 55, said. "A lot of people are concerned about when wind comes around. Is it safe the way it is now (referring to the disposal site)?"

Because of his health condition, Dahaana said, he would like be part of any possible health studies.

According to Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, health studies are currently being conducted including one by the University of New Mexico that is funded by the Centers for Disease Control.

UNM's three-year study is part of a major push to address uranium mining and milling contamination on the Navajo Nation that was approved by Congress in 2007. It will look at pregnancy outcomes and child development in relation to uranium exposure among Navajo women and infants.

Tribe seeks health studies

Basin Home Health and Hospice in Farmington, asked the panel why the study doesn't include the older generation.

"That's who you mostly see in the audience who may have cataracts or developed cancer" from long years of exposure to the mill contaminants, James said.

"The reason this initial effort is looking at women and newborns is a decision that was taken up by the CDC," Etsitty said. "And the reason it's not just concentrated at the UMTRA sites is because there are a lot of other exposures that have happened at these thousands of other sites over the years."

Although the study only examines a segment of Navajo society, Etsitty said, it will help give a better picture of what is happening across the Navajo Nation.

Etsitty said the National Children's Study, which will study the effects of the environment on children from infancy to age 21, is another study that could help address the lack of health studies on the Navajo Nation.

Asked if the tribe is pushing for a broad-based health assessment of those exposed to uranium, Etsitty said the Navajo Nation has made this a recurring request as part of Congress' five-year, multi-agency cleanup of uranium contamination on the reservation.

It was one of four brief follow-up questions by the Navajo Times, prompting Etsitty to respond, "It would be a great help if you would do some of your own research before you pepper me or NNEPA personnel with questions about the work we are doing. Many answers to your questions are in the public domain, either available on federal agency websites or by doing a simple Google search."

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