Uranium leaks discovered in the groundwater have come closer to contaminating the entire supply of drinking water for two villages in the Hopi reservation.
A series of studies conducted by consultants of the Hopi tribe and Navajo Nation show uranium contamination within 100 feet of water supply wells that provide all the drinking water to the village of Lower Moencopi. In addition, contamination is within 2,000 feet of the water supply spring that provides all the drinking water to the village of Upper Moenkopi. As of the 2000 census, the two villages are home to 901 people.
Sharon Masek-Lopez, a hydrologist for the Hopi Water Resources Program, said the consequences of this contamination would be severe.
"If (the water supply) gets contaminated, it's going to create an emergency situation around where they're going to get their drinking water," Masek-Lopez said.
The origin of the uranium leak goes back to the 1960s when the natural gas company El Paso Corporation transitioned from one mining process to another. They needed a location to dump waste that had been produced by the transition. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) chose a location in Tuba City, later to be known as the Tuba City Open Dump Site (TCODS). Masek-Lopez said uranium was among the material dumped at the site, and the deep trenches built by the BIA allowed the uranium to enter the groundwater.
Masek-Lopez said such a dumping, if made by El Paso's mill, would be illegal and would make the corporation responsible for funding the clean-up of the groundwater.
Richard Wheatley, media relations manager for El Paso Corporation, denied the mill was responsible for the leak.
"El Paso Natural Gas Company (EPNG) has performed a thorough file search and we have found no information related to dumping of any material at the Tuba City Open Dump Site done by EPNG while operating the site at the request of the federal government," Wheatley said. "Further, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has an ongoing, invasive site investigation of the Tuba City Open Dump site and has not discovered uranium-containing materials associated with the former mill."
Instead, El Paso said it is the federal government's fault for neglecting the TCODS and has filed a lawsuit against the government that would place the responsibility on various federal agencies.
"El Paso Natural Gas has initiated a lawsuit against multiple federal agencies," Wheatley said. "In its complaint, EPNG alleges that since terminating EPNG's Atomic Energy Commission license in 1968 and directing EPNG to leave the mill site, the United States has owned, maintained or operated the mill site and related properties, and has disposed of hazardous substances at various locations in and around Tuba City. The lawsuit is ongoing."
However, Masek-Lopez said the corporation's lawsuit is faulty, since El Paso is the one who allegedly dumped the material in the first place.
"It is as if El Paso is saying the agencies are at fault because they didn't tell them not to do the dumpings," Masek-Lopez said.
Regardless of who is at fault, it is recognized by all parties involved that the danger of the uranium contamination is getting worse. Over the past 40 years, the uranium has moved through approximately 4,000 feet of groundwater from its source. At this rate, the contamination will reach the wells of Lower Moencopi in approximately 10 years. The main environmental concern of the tribes and government agencies is to find a way to clean the water of all toxens. However, the $38 million that the clean up is estimated to cost has been deemed unaffordable by all the agencies involved, leaving the issue without a viable solution.
"The BIA put together a five-year plan, but the tribes are not happy with it," Masek-Lopez said. "It isn't extensive enough and the time frames are too slow."
The tribes and agencies made a plea to Congress to assist them with solving the problem. Masek-Lopez said she hopes legislation will be passed that gives an organization the authority and the funding to accomplish these clean-ups.
Henry Waxman, a U.S. representative from California, is the head of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He first heard about this issue from a series of articles written by Judy Pasternak in 2006.
"At the time, I assumed that some action would be taken in response," Waxman said. "But a year later, I didn't see any action so I decided to hold a hearing in October 2007."
Waxman placed the blame for the inaction on a lack of cooperation from the various agencies.
"When we brought the agencies all together at the hearing, they told us it was the first time they had all gathered in one place to discuss the issue," Waxman said. "That was a vivid illustration of the complete failure of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to manage the problem. OMB has consistently blocked the agencies from expressing their professional judgment about what needs to be done and what it will cost."
Waxman said he has high hopes that the problem will be solved.
"We think the hearing had a real impact. It served as a wake-up call," Waxman said. "The federal government is finally taking responsibility for this modern American tragedy by beginning to fix the problem."