(MintPress)— The Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming faces alarming rates of cancer and possible health issues related to hazardous material deposits resulting from severe environmental injustices in two separate cities due to both natural gas “fracking” and mismanaged uranium mill tailings near groundwater.
In some areas of the Wind River Indian Reservation, which spans 2.2 million acres and is home to 2,500 Eastern Shoshone and 5,000 Northern Arapaho Indians, groundwater contamination is so bad that the Department of Energy (DOE) estimates drinking water from contaminated aquifers could make residents up to 10X more likely to develop cancer than the general population.
Uranium Mill Contamination
A few miles southwest of the town of Riverton lay the remains of the old Susquehanna-Western uranium mill, which is still used today as a sulfuric acid plant. Residents here have suffered from a significant number of cancer deaths, which are believed to be linked to the massive pile of hazardous material, known as tailings, that was left in the town when the uranium mill closed in 1963.
Wyoming Public Radio interviewed Kenny Slattery, who has lived across the street from the old uranium mill for over 51 years.
“They say there’s a cancer cluster in this area,” says Slattery. “I don’t know, but my mother died of lung cancer, and my father died of prostate cancer. My cousin’s husband died of esophageal cancer just a half-mile from here, and other people have died from cancer around this area too. Dogs have died of cancer. It’s strange.”
Around 1.8 million cubic yards of contaminated material were removed from the area between 1988-1989, according to Jolene Catron, Executive Director of the Wind River Alliance, an organization dedicated to the health and protection of the Wind River watershed. Although some of the hazardous waste was removed, a large plume of cancer-causing radioactive materials remains in the watershed.
The Wind River Environmental Quality Commission reported that the DOE removed only the first seven feet of contaminated soil, leaving at least ten feet of contaminated soil under the surface. The DOE claims that the remaining radioactive material will attenuate naturally in 100 years.
However, water samples taken after a 2010 flood showed contamination levels 100 times the maximum levels set by law. April Gil of the DOE told Wyoming Public Radio that the flood actually increased the flushing rate by loosening up some of the contaminants.
Catron is concerned that while the people of Riverton wait for the radioactive materials to attenuate, continued contamination of the watershed will harm the animals who live and drink from the water and the children who play in the river.
Natural Gas “Fracking” Concerns
Just over 25 miles away on the Wind River Indian Reservation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found high levels of other cancer-causing carcinogens in the water and soil in Pavillion, Wyoming – this time due to hydraulic fracturing instead of uranium milling.
Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking,” is a process by which chemicals are injected deep into the ground at a high pressure, creating fractures in the rock formation that releases natural gases at a faster rate.
Samples taken by the EPA in 2009 found traces of methane and other contaminants in Pavillion drinking water, prompting the gas company, Encana, to issue separate drinking water to the community as a precautionary measure.
The contaminants found in 2009 water samples were within the EPA drinking water standards; however, the EPA proceeded to test surrounding groundwater to determine the extent of regional contamination. The draft results of further EPA tests showed significant levels of benzene as well as synthetic glycols and alcohols, known carcinogens linked to fracking procedures, in groundwater just 200 yards from the drinking wells.
The EPA report cited hydraulic fracturing as the likely cause of the ground water contamination; however, further research is required before the EPA can fully confirm the link. In face of criticism by hydraulic fracturing and well providers, Jim Martin, regional administrator of the EPA, did confirm that, “there’s no reason to doubt that the contaminants were in fact present in the Pavillion groundwater.”
Fracking procedures on the Wind River Reservation are conducted much closer to the surface and to drinking water sources than in other parts of the nation. The EPA is unsure of how the contaminated groundwater may spread over time and is conducting further research to protect the health of Pavillion residents.
In addition to dealing with increased health effects from natural resource excavation, the Wind River Indian Reservation suffers from a 40% high school dropout rate; 49 year life expectancy; 80% unemployment; crime rates five to seven times the national average; and rampant alcoholism and drug abuse, according to the New York Times.
Groundwater contamination resulting from poor remediation policies is not isolated just in Wyoming. Nearly every American Indian Reservation across the nation is affected negatively by the exploitation of natural resources. Many environmentalists have called the exploitation of native lands a form of environmental racism.
Further studies of the groundwater contamination and fracking policies in Pavillion and the health effects of contaminants in Riverton will take at least another two years. Until then, families like those of Kenny Slattery continue to battle a history of environmental injustice.