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Deal between tribes, feds reinstates water sampling on the rez

Jun 23, 2013 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

The agreement requires the U.S. Department of Energy to provide information on the groundwater testing being performed.

The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes have entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to provide public information on the groundwater testing being performed at the Riverton processing site.

On Thursday, the last few samples were collected near the Chemtrade Refinery Services on 140 Goes in Lodge Road, two miles southwest of Riverton. The site sits within the Wind River Indian Reservation boundaries, and residents have feared that their drinking water contains harmful contaminants. DOE hydrologist William Dam said his department has signed a one-year agreement with the Joint Business Council to build public trust and share the results of the testing.

"We want the public to get more involved with what the DOE is doing and (see) that we are protecting public health, and we're protecting the environment as well," Dam said. "There is a lot of misinformation but we can share the facts of what's really going on."

Contamination

A uranium and vanadium-ore-processing mill used to sit where the Chemtrade Refinery Services facility now operates and produces sulfuric acid. The mill operated from 1958 to 1963 and produced radioactive mill tailings, a sandy waste byproduct of uranium mining. This caused uranium, radium and thorium contamination in soils, groundwater and construction debris.

In 1988, roughly 1.8 million cubic yards of the contaminated materials were extracted and placed at the Gas Hills East disposal site about 45 miles away. Today, the site is owned by Chemtrade and is managed by the Office of Legacy Management of the DOE for routine inspections, maintenance and documentation.

There are three aquifers beneath the site, and officials said only one was contaminated by ore-processing operations. The shallow groundwater of the surficial aquifer was affected, and layers of shale separate this aquifer from the semiconfined and confined aquifer, which are several feet thick.

The DOE said in publications that it is "extremely unlikely" that the contaminated water could travel down into the drinking water. According to the DOE, the shale works as an "effective barrier" that prevents this downward migration. Still, the testing of possible contamination continues, especially since a major flood in 2010 caused the Little Wind River to overflow, and studies two weeks later showed increases in contaminant concentrations.

In the 1990s, the DOE performed characterization studies, computer modeling methods and a "natural flushing" method to test the groundwater. The flushing method was given a "100-year regulatory time frame" for completion. The DOE continues to monitor this method and collects data to report annually.

According to the DOE, "although contaminated groundwater is assumed to discharge to the Little Wind River, groundwater contaminants have had no measurable effect on river water quality."

Dam said the DOE previously had a five-year agreement with the tribes that now has expired. Measures were taken to restrict new wells and land use.

Drinking water

Drinking water in the area comes only from the groundwater in the confined aquifer. An alternate water supply system also was installed by Indian Health Services in 1998. The DOE also provided funding for a 1-million gallon storage tank. The Northern Arapaho Utility Organization operates the system that is attached to 8.5 miles of water line. Both wells take water from the confined aquifer and are 650 feet deep.

The public can read more about the sampling on the DOE's website or in the reference section at the Riverton Public Library.

Dam said the DOE will work with local health facilities to ensure locals with health concerns are directed to the right service.

"There were a lot of questions the local community had about their health," Dam said. "The JBC and WREQC has the lead to set up meetings and has the lead to help us get interconnected with the community."

Collecting samples

On Thursday, David Atkinson and Sam Campbell from the S.M. Stroller Corporation, a contractor to the DOE, were collecting samples from the fenced pond off Rendezvous Road near the Chemtrade facility with a water quality meter and water level indicator.

One clear hose collected water from the shallow section and a second hose released excess water. The field measurements then were fed into their computer system, which notified them if the water was clear of debris. Once the water recorded a clear level and a set of numbers stabilized their reading, a green light gave them the OK to collect the water into small plastic bottles.

Atkinson said there are about three general depths and several wells in the pond. He added that only the shallow areas are tested because that is where possible contamination would be.

Ricki Trosper of the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission accompanied the contractors during testing and said the WREQC also performs its own tests which are sent to an independent laboratory. S.M. Stroller performed several tests in more than 30 locations and did the last nine Thursday.

"There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm with this new agreement," Dam said, adding that his department's main goal is to follow through with long-term maintenance and surveillance.

Water sampling is done twice: once when the river flow is highest and again when it is lowest. More sampling is planned to begin in September.