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 non-tribal water systems, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.
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.”
Chris Shuey, a research director at the Southwest Research and Information Center who studies the effect of uranium exposure on Navajo children, said this disparity casts doubt on whether the EPA is serious about enforcing standards. From what he’s observed, bringing systems into compliance costs money the agency simply doesn’t have.
The White Mesa Ute Mountain Ute live within 10 miles of America’s only fully active uranium mill, which sits above its ancient burial grounds. Chemical changes in the aquifer beneath the mill concern Scott Clow, the tribe’s environmental programs director, because below that aquifer sits the community’s drinking water source.
Many residents claim they do not drink the water, even though it falls within regulatory guidelines. Like the Navajo to the south, generations of harm from the uranium industry have bred a deep sense of distrust.
Some residents of White Mesa are concerned about the quality of the liners beneath the mill’s waste ponds. Others have misgivings about recent toxic spills from trucks en route to the mill, reported by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And still others worry about what will happen when the company closes its doors and the waste is still radioactive.
The mill is requesting the renewal and expansion of its operating permits. At one of the hearings in Salt Lake City, a mill representative told residents of White Mesa the company wouldn’t notify their leaders in case of an emergency or radioactive spill — although they would notify leaders in nearby Blanding, a community of mostly white residents. One resident said it’s just one more example of how both the company and the government ignore their concerns.
Yolanda Badback, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member and resident of White Mesa, also attended the hearing. “I said, ‘But we’re only 5 miles south of you guys. At least we need a heads-up if anything happens.’ ”
Residents question health effects
After officials detected high levels of radium, uranium and thorium in the groundwater beneath his land, the Soldier Wolf family in Wind River, Wyoming, began to wonder how contaminants leached from the uranium mill may have affected their health.
Two of Soldier Wolfs immediate family members had full hysterectomies because of cancerous growths and two had breast cancer, despite no family history of this kind. They know 12 other women in the community with the same surgery, concerning for a community of roughly 100 residents.
In response to community concerns over incidents of cancer in the neighborhood, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Epidemiology Center surveyed residents. Early results found that nearly half had a blood relative who had died of cancer, which the researcher called quite alarming.
No one has heard back about final results, however, because the center never completed the survey. The community still doesn’t know whether or not the deaths and illness in families are connected to the uranium in their groundwater.
“I don’t want my great-grandkids to all have cancer or have something else wrong with them,” said Soldier Wolf’s youngest daughter, Yufna Soldier Wolf Gonzalez.
The family said they want answers, but they’re not likely to find them any time soon.
Mike Andreini is the director of the tribal epidemiology center. He said the center went years without an acting director and just a handful of employees. “There is no national tribal public health entity,” he said. “There are regional tribal epidemiology centers, but these operate on a shoestring.”
Because of funding shortages, Indian Health Services can barely keep up with the basic health needs of tribal members, let alone commission or conduct epidemiological studies. Often times, tribes rely on county and state health providers to fill the gaps in their own system, he said.
Ute Mountain Ute tribal attorney Peter Ortego said White Mesa residents also have concerns about health effects from the mill, such as asthma and cancer, but he is having a hard time getting the information they need from Indian Health Services.
Shuey has more than three decades of experience studying water contamination in the Navajo Nation. He said the trouble with contamination and human health is that it’s incredibly hard to prove causality, making it easier to delay or deny a response.
Tribes face complicated funding maze
Doyle has dedicated his adult life to Apsaalooke water. He’s a scientist, member of the local wastewater authority and founding member of a volunteer steering committee dedicated to environmental health. Together, elders in the community decide how they can most improve the health of their people and find ways to make it happen.
Mari Eggers is an environmental health researcher with Montana State University in Bozeman and fellow committee member. “It takes a lot to first figure out what’s going on,” she said.
Once they realized that the wastewater contamination Doyle noticed was leaching into drinking water pipes, they knew they needed to address both the waste pond and the water lines — infrastructure that costs millions of dollars.
Federal agencies have a duty to provide services for Native Americans as a result of treaties. This relationship means that when tribes do get funding, they often don’t control it. For example, the Navajo Nation’s $1 billion settlement to assist in cleanup of old uranium mines was awarded to the EPA, not the Navajo.
Even knowing where to turn presents a challenge. The EPA regulates water on tribal lands, and its representatives’ offices are often in a different state. Within the Apsaalooke tribe’s designated EPA region, two dozen tribes share three or four managers.
While the EPA enforces national water standards on Native American lands, many other agencies oversee the implementation and maintenance of infrastructure, such as Indian Health Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Energy and in some cases state agencies —complicating the delivery of water services. It also makes it easier to point fingers and shirk responsibility, Andreini said.
Andreini said he often hears government officials and politicians say they don’t understand how tribal governance and systems work, challenging their ability to come up with solutions.
Fawn Sharp, vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, said tribes have limited power to raise taxes, which is why they have to secure money from many sources.
That’s how many loans and grants it took for Doyle, a member of the Apsaalooke wastewater authority, to raise the $20 million to fix the leaking wastewater and failing pipes on the Crow Reservation.
Gerlak, the water policy scholar, said that newer models of complex financing that have come as a result of government agency cuts — such as loans, bonds and public-private partnerships — don’t always work for poor, disenfranchised communities.
Tribes find alternative ways to deal with water problems
Seventy-four miles east of Sanders near the small town of Thoreau, New Mexico, Darlene Arviso, a member of the Navajo Nation, fires up a yellow diesel truck after filling its tank with thousands of gallons of fresh water from the St. Bonaventure Mission. She drives hundreds of miles every day along dirt roads filling up 5-gallon drums so Navajo families can drink safe water.
The Navajo Water Utility Authority is working its way down a long wait list to connect homes with a public water system – a list that includes Arviso’s own family. Without the nonprofit work of the mission and its partner, Digdeep, filling in the gaps, more than 150 families would risk turning to their wells for water – wells laced with uranium, mission director Chris Halter said.
Doug Brugge is a leading public health researcher at Tufts University School of Medicine. “It bothers me that it’s taken so long and so little has been done about it,” he said, considering agencies have known old uranium mines have been laying to waste on Navajo lands for decades.
“I am upset that nonprofits have to take up that responsibility,” said Janene Yazzie, a senior planner of the Little Colorado River Watershed Chapters Association. “They’re just a quick fix, short-term remedy for access to clean drinking water.”
Sometimes a short-term fix is the only option. Thanks to an EPA grant to monitor home well water, Doyle and his team can tackle a new challenge: Testing home well water. He now knows that more than half of local wells harbor at least one exceedance in E. coli, uranium and manganese – a contaminant associated with diabetes and potentially brain damage.
They’re now educating homeowners and providing water coolers for those with contaminated wells. Doyle admits it is far from a permanent solution, but it’s the best they can do to keep people safe for now.
“People don’t have the resources to install the water softener, the reverse osmosis unit, the iron removal unit,” said Eggers, the researcher who tests private wells alongside Doyle. “And then all of them require monthly maintenance and monthly expense.”
“It’s just beyond people’s financial means.”
Navajo residents in Sanders, who recently found out their drinking water was contaminated with uranium for over a decade, have learned that the fight for clean water must become a community priority – with home-grown leaders dedicated to the cause.
The Apsaalooke in Montana also found its most powerful resources come from within.
“We started from nothing, just a small group of people that had the community health in mind,” Doyle said. He said they don’t have a new water plant yet, but they have safe water lines running to homes.
“You can quit and walk away from it, or you can decide that you’re going to try to do as much as you can to get it done,” Doyle said.
“We’re all down the stream from somebody else. What they do is going to affect us, and what we do is going to affect somebody else,” he said. “That responsibility is all of ours.”
This report is part of the “Troubled Water” project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
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