Hopi Tribe suing BIA over dump clean-up

Dec 12, 2011

Lionel Puhuyesva walks across a sea of broken glass at the Tuba City Open Dump. Puhuyesva is director of the Hopi Tribe’s Water Resources Program. He has been working 12 years to clean up the groundwater beneath this landfill near Tuba City, Ariz. Last month, the Hopi Tribe sued the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs over the landfill that the federal agency operated for nearly 50 years. 

The lawsuit is the latest in a decade-long push by the Navajo and Hopi tribes to get the landfill cleaned up. They say drinking water for at least 1,800 people is in danger of being contaminated by a moving plume of underground uranium. And they believe time is running out. 

“This is one of the hot spots we’ve found at the dump,” says Puhuyesva, pointing to a well that monitors groundwater under the dump. “The contaminant we detect over here is uranium,” he says. “The EPA maximum contaminant level is 30 for that constituent. We’ve been exceeding that by about 7 times.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says ingesting uranium at high levels can increase the risk of cancer and liver damage. Several radioactive hot spots inside the dump are located less than a half mile from municipal wells that two Hopi villages rely on for drinking water. Puhuyesva says the plume of uranium is moving rapidly toward those wells, and downhill -- toward a sacred spring where Hopis pray daily.

“It could be years, days, months,” he says. “Hopefully we can get some kind of remediation in place. We all identify there is a risk here. But it’s just having BIA and EPA be accountable.”

The BIA operated the dump from the mid-40s to 1997. The site straddles Hopi and Navajo land. Officials from both tribes say the BIA allowed the Rare Metals Uranium Mill to dump radioactive material here in the 50s and 60s. The mill supplied uranium for the government’s Cold War arsenal. Many residents remember seeing Rare Metals trucks dumping material here, says Cassandra Bloedel, environmental program supervisor for the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency.

“They (residents) did say they were bringing in drum loads of something unknown but it was oozing out,” Bloedel says.

But the BIA has another theory about the source of the radioactive groundwater directly beneath the dump. They hired the U.S. Geological Survey to study the issue. The agency’s geologists concluded that strong winds carried dust to the landfill from abandoned uranium mines 30 miles away. They believe sediment eventually traveled underground and contaminated the shallow aquifer. The BIA declined to comment, citing the Hopi Tribe’s lawsuit against the BIA. But Puhuyesva scoffs at the theory.

“The site itself, the background radiation is well below national averages,” he says. “Especially to be so concentrated in one area. We figure if it was windblown, it would be radioactive in this whole valley.”

Bloedel says in addition to uranium, sulfuric acid and vanadium has also been detected in the groundwater below the dump. Sulfuric acid was used to leach uranium from ore at the mill and vanadium is found in the kind of uranium ore that was processed at the mill. Bloedel says Navajo EPA has evidence that the mill dumped material here, including mill balls found above ground at the dump. A mill ball is a ceramic ball used to crush uranium ore to a fine powder. 

“Our geologist found a half mill ball near one of the monitoring wells,” Bloedel says. “But U.S. EPA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs does not believe that mill ball was placed here with the milling waste. They believe somebody, one of us, possibly, deposited it there to be found.”

Bloedel says USGS geologists made the accusation, which she says offended both tribes. The Geological Survey declined to comment on the charge because of the Hopi lawsuit against the BIA. Puhuyesva says the BIA and the U.S. EPA are wasting time and money by conducting more studies. He says after 12 years of studies, the tribe filed suit to compel the federal government to clean up the dump.

“It seems like our word isn’t good enough for them, or our data isn’t good enough,” he says. “We’re like little kids being pushed aside from the table and told to sit at the little kid table while the big people talk.” 

The EPA decided to investigate under the Superfund program last year, says Clancy Tenley, assistant director of the Superfund division in San Francisco. The agency will act as a neutral third party in determining the source of contamination and the best course of action, he says. 

“What we’re doing now I wouldn’t call just another study,” he says. “It’s a rigorous process to evaluate all of the information that’s come forward over the last 10 years.” 

At the Hopi village of Upper Moenkopi, their leader, William Charley, is worried that time is short. One of the village’s water wells is within a quarter mile of the contamination. 

“That’s what our whole Hopi life is around --water. It’s everything to us,” he says. “It’s the unthinkable, if our groundwater should become contaminated. What do we do?”

The EPA expects to make a recommendation on how or if to clean up the site in two years.