Last month, the Hopi Tribe sued the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) over the landfill that the federal agency operated for nearly 50 years. The lawsuit is the latest in a decade-long push by the Navajo and Hopi tribes to get the landfill cleaned up.
They say drinking water for at least 1,800 people is in danger of being contaminated by a moving plume of underground uranium. And they believe time is running out.
“This is one of the hot spots we’ve found at the dump,” said Puhuyesva, pointing to a well that monitors groundwater under the dump.
He continued: “The contaminant we detect over here is uranium. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) maximum contaminant level is 30 for that constituent. We’ve been exceeding that by about 7 times.”
The U.S. EPA agrees with those findings. According to the agency, ingesting uranium at high levels can increase the risk of cancer and liver damage. Several radioactive hot spots inside the dump are located less than half-a-mile from municipal wells that two Hopi villages rely on for drinking water.
Puhuyesva says the plume of uranium is moving rapidly toward those wells, and downhill - toward a sacred spring where Hopis pray daily.
“It could be years, days, months,” he said. “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.”
The BIA operated the dump from the mid 1940s to 1997. The site straddles Hopi and Navajo land.
Officials from both tribes say the BIA allowed the Rare Metals Uranium Mill to dump radioactive material here in the 1950s and 1960s. The mill supplied uranium for the government’s Cold War arsenal.
Many residents remember seeing Rare Metals trucks dumping material here, said Cassandra Bloedel, environmental program supervisor for the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.
“They (residents) did say they were bringing in drum loads of something unknown, but it was oozing out,” Bloedel said.
But the BIA has another theory about the source of the radioactive groundwater directly beneath the dump.
They hired the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to study the issue. The agency’s geologists 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 declined to comment, citing the Hopi Tribe’s lawsuit against the agency.
But Puhuyesva scoffs at the theory.
“The site itself, the background radiation is well below national averages. Especially to be so concentrated in one area,” he said. “We figure if it was windblown, it would be radioactive in this whole valley.”
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 following EPA rules for closing a municipal landfill, including fencing the area.
The conflict between the tribes and the BIA compelled the EPA last year to launch a new investigation, this time under the umbrella of the federal Superfund program, which addresses hazardous waste sites.
Clancy Tenley, assistant director of the Superfund division in San Francisco, says that could mean a wider range of options for cleaning the landfill. He says the agency will act as a neutral third party in determining the source of contamination and the best course of action.
“What we’re doing now, I wouldn’t call just another study,” Tenley said. “It’s a rigorous process to evaluate all of the information that’s come forward over the last 10 years.”
But the tribes feel they have waited long enough. Puhuyesva says the BIA and the U.S. EPA are wasting time and money by conducting more studies.
He says after 12 years of studies, the tribe filed suit to compel the federal government to clean up the dump.
“It seems like our word isn’t good enough for them, or our data isn’t good enough,” Puhuyesva said. “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.”
At the Hopi village of Upper Moenkopi, their leader, William Charley, is worried that time is short. One of the village’s water wells is within a quarter mile of the contamination. Downhill from the dump is a sacred spring, where kachinas deposit prayer feathers during ceremonial dances.
“That’s what our whole Hopi life is around - water. It’s everything to us,” Charley says. “It’s the unthinkable, if our groundwater should become contaminated. What do we do?”
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.