Hopi tribe wants Tuba City landfill cleaned up

January 02, 2012

The Hopi tribe is tangled in a legal battle with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. At issue is a dump the federal agency operated for 50 years near Tuba City in Northern Arizona. The local tribes say the aquifer lying under the dump shows dangerous levels of uranium. They believe the radioactive plume threatens the drinking water of 1,800 people. And they say time is running out to clean it up. From Flagstaff, Shelley Smithson reports.

 SHELLEY SMITHSON:  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 this 30-acre landfill.

 LIONEL PUHUYESVA: “This is one of the hot spots we’ve found at the dump.”

 SHELLEY SMITHSON: Puhuyesva points to a well that monitors groundwater down below.

 LIONEL PUHUYESVA: “The contaminant we detect over here is uranium. The EPA maximum contaminant level is 30 for that constituent. We’ve been exceeding that by about seven times.”

 SHELLEY SMITHSON: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees with these findings. And it says ingesting uranium at high levels can increase the risk of cancer and liver damage. Several radioactive hot spots inside the dump sit less than a half mile from municipal wells that two Hopi villages rely on for drinking water. Puhuyesva says the radioactive plume is moving rapidly toward those drinking wells.

 LIONEL PUHUYESVA: “It could be years, days, months. 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.”

 SHELLEY SMITHSON: The BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, operated the dump from the mid-40s to 1997. It straddles Hopi and Navajo land. Officials from both tribes claim the BIA allowed the Rare Metals Uranium Mill, two miles down the road, to dump radioactive waste here in the 50s and 60s. But the BIA has another theory about the source of the radioactive contamination. Geologists hired by the BIA 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 refused to comment on that theory, citing the Hopi lawsuit against the agency. But Puhuyesva calls it ridiculous.

 LIONEL PUHUYESVA: “Especially to be so concentrated in one area. We figure if it was windblown, it would be radioactive in this whole valley.”

 SHELLEY SMITHSON: The dispute between the tribes and the BIA turns on where the contamination came from, and what should be done to clean it up. The tribes favor hauling away all the material in the dump. The BIA has been managing the closed site like a city landfill -- just surrounding it with a fence. 
The dispute between the tribes and the BIA compelled the EPA last year to launch a new investigation -- this time under the umbrella of the Superfund program, which addresses hazardous waste sites. Clancy Tenley of the EPA says that could mean a wider range of options for cleaning the landfill.  

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

 SHELLEY SMITHSON: But the tribes feel they've waited long enough. Puhuyesva says the BIA and the EPA are wasting time and money by conducting more studies. He says after 12 years, the tribe filed suit this fall to force the BIA to clean up the dump.

 LIONEL PUHUYESVA: “It seems like our word isn’t good enough for them, or our data isn’t good enough. 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.”

 SHELLEY SMITHSON: At the Hopi village of Upper Moenkopi, their leader, William Charley, is worried. One of the village’s main drinking water wells is within a quarter mile of the contamination. And downhill from the dump is Sa-Sing-va Springs, a site where Hopis pray daily. This is also where Hopi Kachinas deposit prayer feathers during ceremonial dances.

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

 SHELLEY SMITHSON: The EPA expects to make a recommendation on how or if to clean up the site in two years. Meanwhile, the Hopi lawsuit is making its way through the tribal court system.

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