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New water tests show no problem near tailings site

May 11, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Tribal test results wrong, DOE says

The federal agency in charge of site cleanup and management of an area affected by uranium contamination near St. Stephen's is reporting that tests showed water safe to drink for residents.

"Everything shows up as clean," April Gil, the Riverton site manager for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Legacy Management, said on Thursday.

Gil reported the agency's findings from tests that occurred after concerns arose about uranium levels exceeding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards at four residences in the area.

"The tap water that people are drinking on the alternate water system is well within the EPA standards for drinking water," Gil said of the latest test results dated May 7.

Previous tests alarming

Earlier testing results provided by Northern Arapaho tribal agencies showed uranium levels at four households at .06 or .07 milligrams per liter, twice the EPA standard of .03.

However, the results of the latest testing determined levels at just .00001 milligrams per liter, Gil said. Further testing results released by the tribe from samples taken in April showed even lower levels at .00005 milligrams per liter, she said about results received May 11.

"That will give people confidence the water was clean" last month when samples were taken by the tribe, Gil said.

"I've informed all the residents ... so that people are not worried, because we were really concerned, and I could well imagine that they are as well," she said.

Residents have been informed by either telephone, e-mail or by Northern Arapaho Utilities Organization director Jerry Redman visiting them personally, she said.

Office of Legacy Management director David Geiser this month said his agency would investigate the alternate drinking water system installed to serve homes in the affected area after receiving indication of possible contamination.

Lab error?

During the public meeting at Central Wyoming College with more than 100 in attendance, Geiser said the Northern Arapaho tribal engineering department disclosed testing results to his agency that showed high contamination levels.

Four of the homes sampled "had elevated uranium in their tap water," Geiser said at the meeting. "This is a significant concern to us."

The federal agency supplied bottled water to the identified households following the disclosure of the contamination concerns in the tap water. The homes received water through Friday when results were officially released.

"We delivered drinking water to them, obviously and we took this extremely seriously," Gil said.

Follow-up sampling conducted by Office of Legacy Management officials the day after the May 2 meeting at the identified homes did not show the same contamination concerns in the agency's results, Gil said.

"We believe it's some kind of... maybe a lab error. We're not sure exactly what happened, but we're looking into it," Gil said of the initial tribal findings presented to the Office of Legacy Management.She said the tribe's lab results "were internally inconsistent" because they showed uranium present without an alpha radiation emitter.

"You can't have uranium and show no alpha because uranium is an alpha emitter," she said. "Now you can have alpha without uranium because other elements emit alpha radiation."

Verified procedure

The concerns stem from contamination and subsequent cleanup efforts around the former Susquehanna uranium processing mill that operated from 1958 to 1963.

The Office of Legacy Management obtained samples at the identified homes in the region using the alternate water system installed in 1998 that serves residences unable to use drinking wells in the contaminated area.

The testing involved six water samples taken on May 3 and transferred to a EPA-certified laboratory in Fort Collins, Colo., for analysis. Gil said one identified property had three mobile homes, while the other samples came from other houses that showed the elevated uranium levels.

Documents posted on the Office of Legacy Management's website show verification of a chain of custody for the water samples and confirmation that testing happened under strict conditions and within standards.

Public outreach

Next steps for the federal agency involve additional work with tribal entities and others in the area including more public outreach in the area to better address concerns of residents.

"We're working with EPA Denver, the drinking water group up there, to kind of better understand what happened here and to establish a rigorous protocol for flushing and maintenance of the system," Gil said of the alternate water supply.

"We will be working with the Northern Arapaho utility organization and the Northern Arapaho engineering department to ensure that whatever we can do to protect public health and safety is done," Gil said.

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