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Raised uranium in reservation water samples
David Geiser, above, of the U.S. Department of Energy spoke Thursday in front of a screen projection at Central Wyoming College. The projection showed an area near where elevated levels of uranium were found in drinking water. Photos by Wayne Nicholls

Raised uranium in reservation water samples

May 3, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Energy is investigating the clean water system installed for a Wind River Indian Reservation area affected by uranium contamination after four homes reportedly exceeded maximum levels.

David Geiser, director of the energy department's Office of Legacy Management, announced the agency's investigation into cleanup efforts around the former Susquehanna uranium processing mill during a meeting Wednesday in Riverton.

Geiser told the more than 100 people at Central Wyoming College that the Northern Arapaho tribal engineering department disclosed testing results to his agency, which oversees cleanup work in the affected St. Stephen's area.

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

Near tailings area

The investigation is the latest concern for residents, scientists and others connected to the region just south of Riverton who have been dealing with the uranium contamination's aftermath resulting from the mill that operated from 1958 to 1963.

Concerns have been raised during the past several months after some monitoring well sites showed a significant spike in contaminant levels coinciding with flooding that hit the Little Wind River south of Riverton in June 2010.

The elevated levels of uranium and other contaminants raised doubt among many in the area about the federal agency's 100-year natural flushing plan to rid groundwater of the harmful substances.

A new priority for the agency is conducting tests at the four affected homes and others in the region that use the alternate water system installed in 1998 that serves residences unable to use drinking wells in the contaminated area.

Geiser said drinking water standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the maximum contaminant level for uranium at .03 milligrams per liter.

The four identified homes had uranium levels at either .06 or .07 milligrams per liter, Geiser said about results provided by the tribal officials.

"It is above that EPA standard, and therefore we need to take action," he said.

Uranium risks

The Environmental Protection Agency's website warns about the dangers of uranium exposure to the human body.

"Intakes of uranium exceeding EPA standards can lead to increased cancer risk, liver damage, or both. Long term chronic intakes of uranium isotopes in food, water, or air can lead to internal irradiation and/or chemical toxicity," according to the website.

The Office of Legacy Management is providing bottled water to the four identified homes "until we can assure that (their) drinking water meets those standards," Geiser said.

He said representatives of his agency will visit the affected homes May 3 to take samples of their water in an effort to verify the results reached by the Northern Arapaho tribal department.

'Chain of custody'

His agency will "ensure a chain of custody once we take that sample" for delivery to a laboratory certified by the Environmental Protection Agency for testing, he said.

"Hopefully as early as Monday we'll be able to confirm or deny (the tribe's results)," Geiser said.

"Next week we'll send out a team and do more comprehensive sampling" that will cover additional residences not showing uranium contamination as well as "other parts of the (water) system," Geiser said.

"We are being very proactive," he added.

Subsequent action by the Office of Legacy Management "will depend on the results of the sampling," Geiser said. He did not say what those steps could entail.

He said the proper operation of the contaminated area's alternate water system remains a priority for the agency's work on the project.

"The whole intention of installing that system was to provide clean drinking water, and that's what we intend to do," Geiser said.