Legislators demand funding for clean-up and monitoring of former uranium mill site

Mar 2, 2012

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With only a week to go until the legislative session is over, Wyoming lawmakers are reviewing a number of bills, including a joint resolution requesting Congress to provide for increased monitoring and funding for remediation of the Riverton uranium mill tailings site. Tailings constitute waste left over from mining operations. Last year we brought you a story about the site in which the Department of Energy released data showing that uranium levels in the area had spiked as high as 100 times the legal limit, and while legislative action on the issue may sound good, it’s bringing up a lot of questions, and anger. Wyoming Public Radio’s Tristan Ahtone reports.

TRISTAN AHTONE: The Riverton uranium mill tailings remedial action bill was designed to allow legislators to assist tribal authorities in their dealings with the Department of Energy – essentially, it would create a platform the state could take to Washington in order to gain support in taking care of the situation. 

CALE CASE: We’d like the Department of Energy to more aggressively handle that situation.

AHTONE: That’s Lander Republican Senator Cale Case.

CASE: We’re assisting tribal authorities in lending support to them in their assertion that this is a real problem and the Department of Energy hasn’t kept their promises and it’s not going like it’s predicted.

AHTONE: What Case is referring to is the DOE’s assertion that the site will clean itself up naturally after 100 years. However, tribal officials are skeptical that this will happen, especially in light of recorded uranium spikes in DOE monitoring wells. The uranium is left over from the 50’s and 60’s when Susquehanna-Western, left behind 1.8-million cubic yards of materials contaminated  with uranium – uncapped and unlined until they were finally removed in the late 1980’s. James Byrd is a democratic representative from Cheyenne. He says the measure is important because when the state gets behind these types of action, it gets the federal government to take notice.

JAMES BYRD: It’s to let the federal government know where we stand so that we can give some ammunition to our congressional delegation or in other events the governor, if he’s going to meet with governors or other officials on the federal level, what it does is it officially gives him a tool in his toolbox to go and put forth a state platform.

AHTONE: In February, Governor Mead sent a letter to Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu expressing concern over the DOE’s assertion that the site will clean itself up, and that the department’s efforts may need to be reassessed. He also urged the DOE to work collaboratively and in close communication with the Tribes to reach acceptable, sustained, and well understood site remediation. In other words, get on with the work, and play nice with Wind River. Wes Martel is co-chair of the Shoshone Business Council. He says the biggest issue at play now is jurisdiction.

WES MARTEL: Any time anything effects trust resources within our exterior boundaries, we want our wind river environmental quality department to be the lead agency… we want to make sure that when people deal with resources and minerals within the exterior boundaries that the tribes are the main party to be dealt with.

AHTONE: However when it comes to jurisdiction, as usual, complications arise in Indian Country. Here’s Michigan State University law professor Matthew Fletcher.

MATTHEW FLETCHER: The tribes that are sort of governing that reservation right now want to be the first responders, so to speak, and the lead environmental enforcement agency or government, naturally, in their traditional homelands.

AHTONE: Fletcher says since the 1970’s the federal government has taken the lead in enforcement of clean air and water cases around the country. However if a state can prove that they can do a better job than the EPA they can get jurisdiction, and this also holds true for tribes.

FLETCHER: The federal government can recognize the Indian tribes there as, essentially, having the same powers as state government. It’s actually called Treatment as State Status, or TAS status. And once the federal government recognizes the tribe as having the same environmental enforcement capacity within its territory as a state, then the tribe has significant abilities.

AHTONE: However, there has to be political will from state and federal officials to support it… which can be hard to come by. Here’s Representative James Byrd in support of the Wind River Tribes being in charge...

BYRD: We have statutorily carved out that as a sovereign nation where the tribes are supposed to have supremacy in what goes on on the tribal lands. I would like to see us work seriously and diligently with them to look at these problems.

AHTONE: Then there’s Senator Cale Case with a slightly more vague answer:

CASE: I don’t know if control is the right word. I certainly think that the state of Wyoming can work with the tribes in both of these areas and we can achieve some better things.

AHTONE: That other area Case is referring to is Pavillion, where the EPA has tentatively linked groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing – which is another area tribes want control over. Here’s Republican Senator Kit Jennings of Casper on that issue.

KIT JENNINGS: It’s absolutely ridiculous what’s going on and I think its way above the pay grade of anyone on the reservation. I think it should stay with the governor and the state and work through what we need to do over there.

AHTONE: As for Governor Mead, he declined to give comment on this story. So where do things stand now: The Riverton Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action resolution has passed through the Senate and is now being debated in the House. As for where tribal, state and federal officials will take this jurisdictional fight is anyone’s guess.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Tristan Ahtone.