This Week From Indian Country Today reports Jan, 18, 2012, at 26, on fears of a cancer cluster on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
“Kenny Slattery has lived on the Wind River Reservation for 51 years, and just across the street from the old Susquehanna-Western uranium mill tailings pile for that entire period of time. “They say there’s a cancer cluster in this area,” says Slattery. . . .
The site is just a few miles southwest of Riverton, the ninth-most-populated city in Wyoming. It has a long history of contamination, as well as a cloud of rumors. . . . officials have begun taking these kinds of stories very seriously. . . . It’s stories like these that prompted tribal officials to contact Folo Akintan, senior epidemiologist for the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and acting director of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Epidemiology Center and ask her to lead an epidemiological study of the area. . . . Akintan also took a tour of the area. “By the time we went around that neighborhood, I could count on one finger how many [of the deceased] didn’t die of cancer,” says Akintan. “Practically all of them [who are over 50] had died of cancer or have cancer right now, and that was quite alarming.”
Over the next two years Akintan will collect scientific data to prove or disprove the stories that go back over 50 years. In 1958 Susquehanna-Western started processing uranium and vanadium ore in the Wind River Reservation using sulfuric acid to extract the elements from rock. The mill closed in 1963 but its sulfuric acid plant is still in production. But when the Susquehanna-Western mill closed, they left behind massive piles of contaminated materials commonly known as tailings. “Those tailings sat uncapped and unlined from the early 1960s until they were removed in the late 1980s in an uncontrolled manner,” says Sam Vance, an environmental scientist and tribal program manager with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “During that time, with the natural processes of rainfall, snow accumulation and snow melt, water percolated through those tailings and drove contaminants—uranium included—down into the ground and ultimately into the water table in that area.”
This happened at dozens of sites across the nation, with a good portion of them on Indian land. In 1988 the Department of Energy (DOE), the regulatory agency responsible for the site, found that soils, surface water and shallow groundwater were all contaminated with uranium, radium and thorium and started removing the materials from Wind River to a new storage location about 60 miles away in the Gas Hills area of Wyoming.”