MILAN, N.M. — Results of groundwater sampling conducted in September 2005 by New Mexico Environment Department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show contaminants in 33 of 34 residential wells sampled, including elevated levels of uranium in 21 of those wells.
Where the contamination is coming from is debatable. Gaps in data from the Homestake Mine have left state and federal regulators with a difficult task in pinpointing just how the contaminants got there.
Jerry Schoeppner of NMED, at a one-on-one meeting last week with Homestake-area residents, said the lack of documentation makes it more difficult to determine which contamination is background, which is coming from Homestake, and which is coming from other nearby uranium operations.
Schoeppner, along with Andy Dudley of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Sai Appaji of EPA Region 6 in Dallas spoke with residents about the sampling of private wells downgradient of the Homestake Uranium Mill Superfund Site.
The sampling was conducted to identify location, use and quality of groundwater in four subdivisions near the site and to take appropriate measure to ensure residents are not drinking water that falls below federal drinking water standards or state water quality standards.
Thirty-four domestic wells located in the alluvial, Upper, Middle and Lower Chinle aquifers were sampled. Results indicate the presence of several contaminants of concern above federal and state maximum contaminant levels.
According to the February 2005 draft report from NMED's Superfund Oversight Section, contaminant standards were exceeded in 33 of the 34 wells, six of which are being used by residents as a primary source of drinking water. The other 28 wells are being used by residents as an alternate water supply.
Though uranium was exceeded in two of the wells being used as primary sources of drinking water, Schoeppner said none of the residents have been supplied with an alternative water source.
In all, maximum contaminant level and New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission standards for uranium were exceeded in 21 of the 34 wells; selenium in three of 34 wells; nitrate in one of 34 wells, and lead in four of 34 wells.
Secondary standards were exceeded in most wells, according to NMED. Contaminants include sulfate in 33 of the 34 wells, total dissolved solids in 33 wells, iron in 14 wells, chloride in one well and manganese in six wells.
It has been documented that on Feb. 5, 1977, Homestake's tailings pond ruptured, spilling 500,000 cubic feet of radioactive debris and contaminated water which is believed to have flooded residents property and seeped into their water supply. NMED and federal officials said they were unaware of the breach in the containment pond. Unfortunately, there are gaps in the data after 1975, according to Schoeppner.
New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission regulations for background radiation state that any operator that contributes any kind of contamination is responsible for that contamination, Schoeppner said. "Any contamination coming from offsite, from another operation, they're not liable for that."
In Homestake's case, the state also has documented contamination coming from the Ambrosia Lake area. "Homestake's not responsible for cleaning that up. They're responsible for what they contributed on top of that," he said.
Residents with contaminated wells apparently will have to wait on the health assessment being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry before it is decided whether they merit an alternate water source.
"We're waiting for the word from ATSDR," Schoeppner said, "but also, in order for us to force any operator to buy an alternate water supply, we have to have justification, and that justification comes in our argument to prove that it's coming from that site. And again, at this site, we don't have that information.
"The uranium that we're seeing at Felice Acres, Broadview Acres no doubt. It's coming from the mill site. Fortunately, there's no domestic wells there that are being used. If there were in that area, it would be a no-brainer. Those would be taken care of," he said.
"The other areas a little bit further from the mill site. It becomes more complicated whether or not that's background, that's mill site, and who is responsible for that," he said.
Andy Dudley of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said the federal agency initially got involved to look at the well sampling and to provide a consultation. But in talking with the state, "we decided it was better to do sort of a historical perspective and see what people have been exposed to over a period of time. One well sampling event can't I mean, you can make all kind of assumptions but it doesn't give you exact concentrations per hour.
"So that's what we're trying to do go back and look at each well, look at how many times it was sampled, what the concentrations were, how often people drink it (and) where they drink it," he said.
Homestake area resident Candi Williams raised concerns regarding the bioaccumulation of uranium in humans and whether any animals she raises might be affected by the build-up of uranium in their tissues as a result of drinking the water and grazing on plants grown in potentially contaminated soils near the site.
Dudley told Williams that uranium does not bioaccumulate in humans and that the impact to any lambs and pigs she raises should not be a problem.
Ann Harris, liaison for the newly formed Radiation Committee of the Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Strategy Team, and executive director of We The People Inc. a non-profit organization that supports nuclear industry employees abused by the employer (whistleblowers), begged to differ with ATSDR's contention that uranium does not bioaccumulate.
"I respectfully disagree," she said. "Think in terms of your local X-ray at the doctor: They tell you to look at the cumulative effect over a period of years. And today we are cautioned about how many X-rays we have even at the dentist's office because of the nature of the accumulation.
"That's been one of the big things that discredits those guys at the ATSDR," Harris said. "In communities where, let's say, there is exposure through the water system, it has been easily proved what was in there that was putting people in the graveyard.
"The idea that they're taking care of public health and safety, I would challenge them on that because basically the majority of their rulings have been in such a way that they've proven themselves to be useless in support of public health and safety.
"They can use all the big words that they want, these scientific words, but they are not looking at their own data, apparently. In my opinion the American taxpayer would best be served if they were done away with because they are of no use and haven't been to anybody except Corporate America."
Regarding residents' chronic exposure to uranium and other contaminants since Homestake began operations in 1958 and the tailings ponds began leaking, Harris said, "Whenever you have this kind of unrestrained stream into the public, then common sense will tell you that there is a cumulative effect. They're not looking for it because they don't want to find it.
"There's no nice way for me to say anything except they lied. Either that, or they are totally, outrageously incompetent. Whenever you make people expendable, you don't have a conscience," she said.