Tribes demand action and oversight for uranium clean-up

Mar 9, 2012

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During this year’s Legislative session, lawmakers proposed a joint resolution known as the Riverton Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action bill. Tailings are waste left over from mining operations. In this case, the tailings in question are from uranium mining on the Wind River Reservation. The tailings have caused groundwater contamination, which many residents believe has led to health problems.

The resolution that was proposed in the legislature requested that Congress provide increased monitoring and funding for remediation of the site. Some lawmakers – and Gov. Matt Mead -- wanted the increase in monitoring, because they felt the Department of Energy has not been able to remedy health hazards associated with the tailings.

But the bill failed, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s reply to the governor this week brings up even more questions. Wyoming Public Radio’s Tristan Ahtone joins us to talk a about what’s been going on with efforts to deal with uranium contamination on the Reservation. Hi Tristan.

AHTONE: Thank you.

HOST: So just for some background, we found out about the uranium contamination in 2010, after flooding hit the reservation … and that flooding caused uranium levels to spike in monitoring wells…

AHTONE: Correct. The Department Of Energy has been monitoring the site for quite some time and in 2010, uranium levels on a section of Wind River, just a few miles away from Riverton, spiked to nearly 100 times the legal limit in a number of monitoring wells. That event sparked a lot of concern on the Reservation… and since then, the tribes have questioned the Department of Energy’s assertion that the uranium site on the reservation would clean itself up naturally after a-hundred years.

The tribes also asserted that the DOE did not negotiate with tribal officials in good faith… and said the DOE ignored information and concerns about health problems people were having in the area… AND said the agency withheld critical data gathered from tribal authorities.

HOST: Sounds like trouble.

AHTONE: With a capital “T”. 

HOST: So, in February, Governor Mead wrote a letter to the Department of Energy expressing concern about the site, and requesting that the Department work with the tribes. Between that request and what you’ve reported in the past: is the problem basically that the tribes and the DOE haven’t been able to work together?

AHTONE: Basically, yes. These types of allegations – withholding of information, downplaying concerns, not negotiating in good faith, etc. etc. -  are never good for a working relationship, and the governor, legislature, tribes, DOE and everyone else involved seem to agree that there’s a problem with how people are working together, but have yet to find a solution.

HOST: So, what about the allegation that the DOE withheld data and information from the tribes?

AHTONE: Well… to quote Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu: “The DOE respectfully disagrees.”

In October of 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency held a meeting with the tribes to review a report on the site’s groundwater monitoring strategy, and representatives of the DOE were at the meeting.

The next day, the DOE gave the tribes their now-infamous report showing massive uranium spikes.

Now, tribal officials say the DOE waited to give them the report until after the meeting, because they were worried the tribes would run to the media with it and cause a panic… However, the DOE strongly disagrees with that.

Either way, how this data was eventually given to the tribes has become a sore spot in negotiations.

HOST: So, where does the DOE stand on those other allegations – like the accusation that they weren’t willing to negotiate with the tribes?

AHTONE: In terms of negotiations, the Wind River Tribes worked with the DOE under a cooperative agreement until October of last year. Under that agreement, the DOE provided the tribes funding for monitoring and studies of the area.

The DOE has reached an agreement with the Northern Arapaho Business Council to provide support for the area’s alternative water supply - and the Department has also granted several extensions to that original cooperative agreement that expired in October, so that the tribes could continue receiving financial support while negotiations continue.

But the tribes want more than that. They requested more funding … and they want to be in control of all monitoring and sampling… And the DOE has pretty much said “no” to that request.

In other words, they still haven’t agreed on who gets jurisdiction for the monitoring.

HOST: So who ultimately gets to decide on the jurisdiction?

AHTONE: Well that’s a pretty complicated process that a lot of times ends up in federal court. There are a lot of questions about if the tribe has the capacity to take a lead here, but there are also overlapping layers of jurisdiction: contaminated water falls under the clean water act and therefor the EPA, but the DOE basically owns the contamination. So both of those federal entities can claim jurisdiction. However it’s tribal land, so that’s sovereign territory, but because it affects not only tribal members but Wyoming citizens, the state wants a say also.

So the golden rule on jurisdiction in Indian country, no matter when dealing with the environment, crime or taxes is that it’s complicated, and that there’s not always clear answer unless there’s existing statutes or a court takes a position.

HOST: So where do negotiations stand now?

AHTONE: Well, we’re waiting on a new agreement between the tribes and the Department of Energy.

HOST: Out of curiosity, we know that the uranium mill out there only operated for five years and left behind almost 2-million cubic yards of uranium tailings, unlined and in the open. Has anyone done any monitoring on plant or animal life at all?

AHTONE: That’s a good question: the tribes have done some testing of crayfish and say there are concentrations of uranium in those creatures… but plants, and end-user species like raccoons, that could show bio-accumulation haven’t.

HOST: End user species?

AHTONE: Basically the bigger animals that are at the top of the food chain:  plant life in the water absorbs contaminants… fish and other critters eat those plants and each other… and then a bigger animal comes along and eats those fish - all the while the concentration of contaminants becomes magnified – sort of like how mercury works its way into dolphins. So, no, there hasn’t been much monitoring of plants and animals, but a new agreement might mean more funding and support, in which case, it might be on the list in the future.

As well, in May, the DOE will hold a meeting on the situation, and it’s expected that the EPA and U.S. Geological Survey will release an assessment of the DOE’s hundred year plan on whether it’s working or not.

HOST: I’m sure everyone’s eager to hear those results.

AHTONE: I’m sure they are too.

HOST: Tristan Ahtone is a reporter and general badass here at Wyoming Public Radio. Thanks for the update.

AHTONE: Thank you.