Wind River Reservation residents still worry about uranium waste in tap water

May 11, 2012

Last week, the Department of Energy announced that uranium at nearly twice the legal limit had been found in the tap water of four households on the Wind River Reservation. The event marks another incident in a long and troubled history in the area.  Wyoming Public Radio's Tristan Ahtone brings us this report on the find.

TRISTAN AHTONE: In 1963 the Susquehanna-Western uranium mill ceased operation on the Wind River Reservation. When it closed, it left behind nearly 2-million cubic yards of contaminated material - known as tailings - unlined, in the open, and subject to rain and snowfall for over 20 years. In 1988 the Department of Energy moved the contaminants to the gas hills and announced that the site would clean itself up after 100 years. But in 1998, the Department returned to the reservation telling residents that they shouldn't drink from their water wells for fear of contamination.

YUFNA SOLDIER WOLF: That's where we used to get all our water, well water. This little house.

AHTONE: That's Yufna Soldier Wolf, an Arapaho tribal member living about a mile away from the old, Susquehanna tailings site. She points to the now abandoned pump house on her family’s property.

SOLDIER WOLF: And we used to play in it. Like, that little ditch right there, when we were little kids, we used to play in all that water right there.

AHTONE: Soldier Wolf’s family was told not to drink their water around 1998, and the DOE eventually brought an alternative water supply to the area – plastic piping that runs from a clean source of water, through the contaminated uranium plume, to the Soldier Wolf’s house and around 40 others. But not everyone got on it. Take the neighbor, Cathy Soldier Wolf, Yufna's sister-in-law, for example. She finally got on the DOE's water supply last fall. Up until then, she used a well – the same instrument DOE told people not to use. Walking into her home, she immediately shows off her washing machine, bathroom sink, and tub: they're all stained the color of rust after using the well water.

CATHY SOLDIER WOLF: I call it kind of like a rust red. That's what my hair used to be anyway.

AHTONE: Cathy Soldierwolf is a blonde.

SOLDIER WOLF: We ruined lots of clothing and even near the end if I did, like, blue clothes, you'd find patches of brown all through 'em. All of my Taekwondo clothes got ruined because they'd go brown and yellow and so we'd have to throw 'em out or anything white, we’d have to go into town. Even dark clothes was ruined.

AHTONE: Soldier Wolf says now, with the DOE water supply, they can wash clothes in the house again, and occasionally drink, but that may not be the same for everyone. On May 2nd the Department of Energy announced that fall testing results showed levels of uranium in four household taps on the alternative water supply at nearly twice the legal limit. This week, new test results were released showing those same taps, plus two more, had well below the legal limit. However, the find does little to assuage fears in the community. Yufna Soldierwolf, say there is a problem in the area, especially with the DOE’s pipe, and especially when it breaks. She explains what her water looks like when that happens.

YUFNA SOLDIER WOLF: It would look like you dipped your glass in the muddy little ponds that you get after it rains. That's how it would look if you got a cup of water. Like we would run the shower or bath for the kids, sediment would come out of that too and just be in the tub or the shower.

AHTONE: Yufna says when there's a pipe break, it's hard to know if it's safe to use the water. She says most of the time, the only way for residents to know there may be a problem is when they see workers out fixing or flushing the system. Last year we spoke with DOE officials, after test results showed that uranium spikes had appeared in the area nearly 100 times the legal limit as a result of the 2010 floods. Here’s the DOE’s April Gil: manager of the site talking about whether breaks could allow contaminated groundwater and sediment to get into the pipe and eventually, in peoples taps. Again, this is from last fall.

APRIL GIL: So I have talked to the lead engineer out there, Jerry Redman, and he says that this is not an issue. Essentially water doesn't flow up hill. And I know people are very concerned about that, but we don't believe it's a real serious technical problem.

AHTONE: So I found “Jerry” Redman, the director for the Northern Arapaho Utility Program, and asked him about the issue.

GERALD REDMAN: Anytime you get a break in the line, there's always the potential for contamination to enter into the water system. You always have to flush the lines after a break.

AHTONE: And when there's a break and a flushing, how do people know about it and take precautions? They don't.

REDMAN: When you've got 400 customers and say 20 customers are affected, you know, to drive to each home and tell them 'don't drink your water until we let you know again,' you could say it on the radio, and people could say 'well, we didn't listen to the radio,' 'well, we put it on.' so other than the radio station and hand deliver a notice.

AHTONE: On top of that, Redman says when there's a break, Northern Arapaho Utitlies have to get the water tested for chloroform or other contaminants before giving the residents the okay to drink.

REDMAN: You can't just say 'hey, your water's safe, go ahead and drink it,' you have to have the lab verify it and it could take two to four days.

AHTONE: In 2005 a report commissioned by the DOE found contaminants in the form of radionuclides in the alternative water supply… and that same report concluded that contamination was most likely due to stale and stagnant areas of the system, OR biofilm capturing and concentrating radionuclides. The final conclusion: flush the system every six months and if that doesn’t work, physically remove stagnant water and bio-film with a robot. Neither Northern Arapaho Utilities or the DOE could confirm if any of these protocols had been adopted. Again, here's Yufna Soldier Wolf:

YUFNA SOLDIER WOLF: All we want is clean water. Is that possible? Are we going to be able to even get that? A lot of finger pointing goes around, but really, nobody wants responsibility for it and be accountable for what's happened.

AHTONE: The Department of Energy refused to talk to us about this in person, and did not return additional requests for follow-up interviews in time for this story. For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Tristan Ahtone.