Part 1 of 2: Native American tribes fight for clean water and more money
ENCY, Mont. —When John Doyle first noticed signs of trouble in the Little Bighorn River, he was still a young member of the Apsaalooke Nation in southeastern Montana.
Stagnant water would pool in some areas, filling with algae. It wouldn’t even freeze in the cold of winter. Later, catfish would turn up with quarter-size white sores.
Doyle knew something had gone seriously wrong with the river – from which tribal members would drink, swim and practice religious ceremonies.
He took his observations to officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After several months, he went to them again. And again.
Looking back, Doyle, now 68, recognizes he was naive to think the government would take quick action. The tribe’s wastewater was leaching into the river. He now understands that the tests, studies and maze of bureaucratic hurdles to address such water issues take time and money.
Three decades later, Doyle managed to raise enough funds to move and replace the sewage pond and safely separate the sewage pipes from clean water lines, which had been placed side by side. The river still teems, however, with virulent strains of E. coli and nitrates.
Doyle’s experience wrestling with the complex bureaucracy necessary to address water issues is common on Native American reservations. During the past decade, tribal water systems averaged about 60 percent more water-quality violations compared with nontribal water systems, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.
A variety of forces work against tribes and their quest to provide clean, safe water to their members. Tribal members must cope with the health repercussions of extensive mining and farming activities on or near their land, whether approved by the tribe or not. The federal government carved reservations in remote and confined pockets of the U.S., making it difficult to provide reliable infrastructure. They often lack the money to improve their water systems themselves, which means they have to navigate a complicated puzzle of government agencies to shore up funding.
Native Americans are far more likely than any other group to live without plumbing — up to 30 percent of households, according to the EPA. A recent report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Natural Resources notes that tribes consistently receive the lowest funding per dollar of need out of any jurisdiction in the U.S.
Research also indicates Native Americans are more likely to experience health problems from water contamination because they use the land and water for subsistence and cultural practices.
Many Native Americans said they are frustrated at the lack of commitment to their water and health needs, and many fear resources will only become tighter now as they fight for a dwindling pool of grants.
President Donald Trump earlier this year proposed cuts to the EPA and other government agencies, which support tribal water systems.
For strained water systems, it’s like rubbing salt on wounds that have never been given the chance to heal. A 2003 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported funding for tribal programs was in a state of crisis so systemic it violated civil rights.
“Just keep in mind the EPA is already one of the most underfunded regulatory agencies,” said Chris Shuey, a research director at the Southwest Research and Information Center who studies the effect of uranium exposure on Navajo children. “It’s supposed to do a lot with very little. If you already take an agency vulnerable from a funding standpoint and take away even more of its funding, it’s going to essentially eliminate its requirement to regulate.”
Three decades after Doyle’s meetings with Bureau of Indian Affairs officials about the Little Bighorn River, he watches Apsaalooke children swimming and playing in the water.
Doyle is reminded of an Apsaalooke elder’s teaching: “Water is an essential part of our life. But it’s also dangerous. It can take our life very easily.”
Mining leaves legacy of contamination
Mining companies have extracted materials such as gold, uranium and coal on Native American lands for centuries. The contamination left behind, such as excess lead, selenium and chromium, remain long after the miners’ final paychecks.
Roughly 600,000 Native Americans live within 6 miles of an abandoned mine, according to the Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity.
Most of the uranium mines in the western United States are on federal and tribal lands, a government mining database shows. Public health researchers are especially concerned about these mines because the half-life of uranium is more than 4 billion years.
Chronic exposure is linked to cancer and kidney disease.
“You don’t have a lot of options if your water is contaminated with uranium,” said Debra MacKenzie, a researcher at the University of New Mexico. “It’s hard to take away a mountain. You can’t just move away.”
A recent U.S. Department of Justice Department report on environmental justice lists the legacy of Cold War-era mines in Navajo country as “one of the most severe environmental justice problems in Indian Country.”
Most communities aren’t so lucky. Settlements with mining companies are rare when it comes to remediation of contamination on Native American lands, said Paul Robinson, a research director at the Southwest Research and Information Center in New Mexico.
“Trying to avoid cleanup is a standard industrial practice,” Robinson said.
When mining companies don’t pay for cleanup, the burden falls on cash-strapped government agencies – and the people who live there.
Standing on the front porch of his home crafted out of recycled beams, 89-year-old Mark Soldier Wolf, an elder of the Arapaho Nation, locks his gaze on the sulfuric acid plant less than a mile up the road. In 1957, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ordered him off his land to make way for a uranium mill, he said.
He relocated, but his troubles didn’t stop there. To mill weapons-grade uranium, operators crushed ore and deposited waste into unlined pits, which leached into the groundwater. Twenty-five years after the mill closed, the U.S. Department of Energy informed residents of the contamination. It took another decade before the department connected them to an alternate water supply.
Today, the department’s cleanup plan is to let the uranium flush naturally over the next 100 years, but this target will not be reached, said Steve Babits, a scientist with the Arapaho environmental office. The alternative water system, which runs through contaminated groundwater, is past due for an upgrade — and some residents aren’t even connected to it. Aside from a few fact sheets about the area posted to the energy department’s website, there’s no information going out to tribal members, Babits said.
Soldier Wolf and his family said they do not trust agencies in charge of the site. More than 50 years since officials kicked Solder Wolf off his land, he and his kids shell out 75 cents a bottle for water rather than drink from the alternative water supply — water they have to pay the tribal utility for.
“I’m still waiting impatiently,” Soldier Wolf said. “For what? I don’t know anymore.”
Even when the traces of mine contamination aren’t visible, they can still pose a threat. “A lot of people don’t realize they are living near (old) mine sites,” said MacKenzie, the New Mexico researcher.
Tommy Rock, a scientist and member of the Navajo Nation, tested water in communities on and off the reservation with an environmental justice grant from the EPA. When results came back in 2015, what he found horrified him, he said. In Sanders, Arizona, just outside the Navajo Reservation, his tests indicated the average concentration of uranium at 1 1/2 times the EPA’s drinking water limit.
Records show the EPA and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality knew the water was contaminated as far back as 2003, and both sent violation notices to the water provider. It wasn’t until 2015 that the state notified residents of the contamination, claiming the contamination did not pose a risk to human health.
Public health experts MacKenzie and Shuey, however, would consider 10 years of uranium contamination as dangerous chronic exposure.
Documents show the small water provider largely ignored the violations, and it later told residents they needed more money to do additional testing, Shuey said.
“In many places, people don’t want to know because they don’t have money to do anything about it,” said Andrea Gerlak, a University of Arizona water policy researcher.
Residents have their suspicions about what caused the contamination: The largest release of radioactive waste in the history of the United States happened near the community. However, the community has yet to go through the onerous process of proving the source of contamination. Residents are still pulling together funds to support an alternative water supply.
Even if the EPA finds something wrong with a Native American water system, it doesn’t enforce its standards to the degree it does with nontribal systems, according to a 2016 study.
Editors note: see next weeks edition of the Navajo-Hopi Observer for the rest of the story
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