Living Near The Homestake - Company Working To Clean Up 30 Years Of Uranium Waste
By Kathy Helms -Dine Bureau
MILAN -When Candi and Mickey Williams moved from Grants to Milan around 2003, they knew the Homestake Mill site was located about a mile away, but little did they realize that within five years the former uranium mill would be declared a public health hazard by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
When Homestake Mining Co. first opened its uranium processing mill in 1958, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had not been born and the company operated according to normal industry practice. Now it is working to comply with regulations imposed by the feds and state that were nonexistent before 1970.
The mill operated for 30 years, closing in 1990. Dan Kump, senior project engineer for the Homestake site in Milan, said the company has been working on the cleanup project for a number of years “and we are definitely going to be here until it’s all done and done correctly. We’ve been glad to be a part of this community.”
Two uranium mill tailings piles remain on-site. The unlined tailings piles overlie the San Mateo alluvial aquifer, into which radioactive and non-radioactive contaminants have migrated. Seepage from the piles now has reached portions of the Upper, Middle and Lower Chinle aquifers.
Several hundred people in the vicinity of the mill depended upon the shallow alluvial aquifer as a water supply before an alternate supply was provided to nearby residences in 1985 by Homestake under a consent decree with EPA.
“We bought out here because we were looking for a place away from town, where we could have all our animals, that was in our price range,” Candi and Mickey Williams said. For $65,000 they purchased a four-bedroom, two-bath fixer-upper situated on nearly five acres of land. “I didn’t know anything about the water or contamination and I had lived in Grants all my life,” Candi said.
In 2005, their son, Kyle, now 6, developed a case of extreme diarrhea. He was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with sulfate poisoning. Consumption of drinking water with sulfate levels above 600 parts per million can cause laxative effects, including diarrhea, which can result in dehydration. Infants and children are more susceptible.
“Kyle was a sick little boy,” Williams said. That’s when they came and tested our water originally.” Test results from the family’s well showed sulfate readings of 727 ppm in 2005 and 842 ppm in 2006.
When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials came around, “They said they were testing water in the area and they wanted to check the water table,’ she said. “That was the year that all the water came off the mountain and flooded this whole area.”
Kyle is now healthy and normal, according to his mom, who believes it is because the family switched to drinking bottled water after they got the test results. Their well, located in the Lower Chinle aquifer, was drilled in 2001 at a depth of 280 feet and provided 20 gallons of water per minute.
The Williams’ other three children are a medical mystery. Though there is no family history of genetic malformations, they have had more than their share. And within months of moving to their new home, the children’s conditions appeared to worsen, according to Candi.
Mickey, 11, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 3 years old.
“He fought cancer for about eight years,” his mother said.
“He went on the cured list in January 2006.” However, he still has enchondroma, a type of noncancerous cartilage tumor that appears on the inside of the bone, “but that’s lifestyle threatening, not life threatening.”
Dylan, 10, has Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, a rare congenital circulatory disorder for which there is no cure. “It made his right leg grow bigger, his left arm grow bigger, the right side of his heart, the left side of his brain but the left side of his skull, one of his kidneys, one side of his liver, his small intestine, and one of his lungs,” she said.
When they asked the doctors about the cause, they were told “gene malformation,’ she said, “but if you ask why, they tell you, “Oh, we don’t know. These things just happen.” But he’s doing OK. He’s still on heart medicine, he still doesn’t have the part of his brain to tell him he’s hungry, so he’s on appetite stimulants so that he will eat.”
Josh, 4, “is doing good. Lucky for us he had a big head. The place on his skull fused together too early, but his head was big enough that he has plenty of room. He has a deformed ear, but that was a genetic situation No reason why given by the doctor, of course.”
Though the Williams began drinking bottled water after their initial well test results, “When we got the letter six months later it said not even to cook with our water, which, we had been cooking with it,” Candi said. In addition to high sulfate readings, the nitrate levels were high and are of even more concern.
Last month, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry declared Homestake a public health hazard.
Sampling in May 2006 identified sixteen well owners who are using their wells for drinking water. One well contained uranium at 265 parts per billion, as opposed to the EPA and New Mexico “safe” standard of 30 ppb.
“We are going to definitely take care of everything that was resultant of how we operated throughout the years,” Kump said. “Mind you, this all started back in the ‘50s during the Cold War when everybody needed uranium so we could beat the Russians.
“The reason I say that, though, is back then ‘liner’ wasn’t even invented yet. So the normal procedure was to do exactly what we had done. That was normal industry practice. Nobody had given much more thought to any of these things. The U.S. EPA for instance, wasn’t even formed until 1970, and we’d been operating 14 years before that.”
Kump said he had not read the ATSDR report completely and could not address the findings.
New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission regulations for background radiation state that any operator that contributes any kind of contamination is responsible for it. Homestake is not liable for contamination coming from another uranium mining/milling operation. However, the source of any off-site contamination would have to be proven.
During a 2006 meeting, state officials said that in Homestake’s case, the state has documented contamination coming from the Ambrosia Lake area. Homestake would not be responsible for cleaning that up, but would be responsible for what they contributed on top of that.
EPA reported in April that Homestake continues to operate a groundwater extraction/injection system at the former mill site to de-water the large tailings impoundment and clean up groundwater contaminated by tailings seepage.
“We’re definitely doing the right thing and we?re doing it for all the right reasons, because it needs to be done and we’re going to do it right,” Kump said, adding that Homestake is achieving its goals. “The quality is definitely improving in the groundwater around here. We hope to get everything as good as it can be for everybody.”
Elevated nitrates can cause serious illness and death, Williams said, reading from a letter she received from New Mexico Environment Department. Boiling the water makes the nitrates more concentrated.
“So then we started cooking with bottled water, and since then there’s been no relapses. Dylan’s heart is doing much better than it was before. He’s not having as many apnea spells He still has them, it’s part of his condition and is always going to be there, but it has decreased.
“They called it a ‘coincidence.’ But things have gotten better since we don?t drink that crappy water anymore,” she said.
The Williams’ well, one of the wells farthest from the Homestake site, was sampled in 2001 when it was installed but not again until 2005. That year, nitrates were measured at 16 parts per million. This level is above the drinking water standard of 10 ppm.
In May 2006, the nitrate concentration was at 25.3 parts per million. By November, it was at 27 ppm. ATSDR said the source is unknown, though usually it is due to fertilizer runoff or leaching from septic tanks or sewage. The Williams had the septic tank pulled and tested and there were no leaks from the tank or the line. They have no neighbors close by.
Last October, Homestake began hauling water to the family after their well started to go dry. “Homestake owns the fields and leases them to private owners to grow alfalfa, and people buy the alfalfa and feed it to their horses,” Williams said.
“They are irrigating all these hayfields out here with water as part of their recycle system, but they’re sucking water out of the aquifers as well. Anyway, our well went dry, so I called Homestake.
“I said, ‘You know, every year we have this trouble. As soon as you guys start watering those fields, our water pressure goes down and we run out of water for a couple weeks ‘ you guys quit irrigating and we get water again.”
“So they came out and pulled our pump out and put these sensors down there. You can’t just look and see the water level, you have to actually measure it because it’s so far down there. And now they’re hauling us water from the village of Milan.
“They haul it on Mondays and Friday, so we have city water now. They bought a 3,000 gallon tank and they buried it halfway in the ground and plumbed it into our plumbing. They’ve been really good to us. They’re taking care of us.
“They can’t fix our water and I think, honest to God, these people know they can’t fix the water. It’s just getting worse. The uranium has gone up, but not over 'safe' standards. It goes up every time they test it.
“Our nitrates have gone through the roof. My well was the only one with nitrates. Now some of the Homestake wells and the Continental Divide wells east of my house, the nitrates hit those. It’s moving east toward the subdivision,” she said.
Williams was told that their home is sitting atop a mixing zone where the Upper, Middle and Lower Chinle aquifers come together. She believes the nitrate plume is coming from the former Anaconda Mill. “Everybody said, “Oh, it’s fertilizer, it’s septic tanks.” But Anaconda has a known nitrate plume. I can’t blame all my water problems on Homestake.”
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