Category Archives: Colorado River

Agency rejects proposal to build mega resort project next to the Grand Canyon


Katrina Garvin Shadix's photo.

One of the most revered natural landscapes in America, the Grand Canyon, scored a major victory yesterday when the U.S. Forest Service shot down a company’s proposal to build a sprawling mega resort one mile from the iconic National Park.

This sprawling urban development would have included 2,100 housing units, hotels, a spa and conference center, effectively turning the Grand Canyon into a mega resort. As Earthjustice attorney, Ted Zukoski, who worked on the issue put it, “This is a great day for Grand Canyon National Park, and those who love its stunning vistas, abundant wildlife, and rich cultural heritage.”


Southwest’s water crisis hitting Navajo people first – and hardest


 LEUPP, Ariz. – A lifetime of declining snowfall on the Navajo Reservation is making an already unforgiving desert landscape increasingly uninhabitable.

Snow tracked at six northeastern Arizona weather stations has plummeted by more than two-thirds on average since the 1930s, according to research led by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Dozens of streams that flowed year-round on the reservation now dry up seasonally, and the parched springs and wells along their banks send isolated residents on long drives for store-bought water.

Local temperatures rising on average 2 degrees Celsius since the 1960s have sapped moisture. The advancing water crisis here could be a preview of the Greater Southwest’s challenges, as warming winter temperatures morph snow into rain and accelerate evaporation across the highlands.

The Salt and Verde rivers, a crucial supplier to the Phoenix area, originate in the snows that ring the reservation along the Mogollon Rim. And the Colorado River, lifeblood of the entire Southwest, starts with Rocky Mountain snows that also are fading.

“It’s just hitting the Navajo people first,” USGS geomorphologist Margaret Hiza Redsteer said.

And perhaps hardest.

As in Bolivia and other global pockets of poverty, worsening water scarcity comes down hard on those with the fewest means of adapting. The Navajo Nation’s median household income of about $20,000 is less than half Arizona’s average. The tribe’s Economic Development Division lists the unemployment rate at 42 percent and the poverty rate at 43 percent.

The drying has forced major changes on Navajos, making their lives even more difficult.

“We used to go to the river and plant corn,” said Alice McCabe, 70, a Navajo who has lived her adult life in and around Leupp. “But not anymore, because it gets dry.”

That family farming ended 30 years ago, for her and her neighbors who roasted a traditional corn variety and also used it in ceremonies.

“Now we’re just buying sweet corn from the stores (in Winslow),” McCabe said.

Likewise, she and husband, Jimmie McCabe, 73, used to retrieve water from a spring a couple of miles away from his ancestral homestead out a web of dirt roads west of Leupp. The spring dried up 15 years ago, he said. Now, though the tribe provides drinking water in Leupp, they often stock the ranch with bottled water from their 60-mile round trips to a Winslow supermarket.

“For a long time there’s no snow,” he said.


The first hit


Eighty years of declining snowfall have changed the landcape of the Navajo Nation, with direct implications for the Navajo people. (David Wallace/The Republic)

Effects of drying


The McCabes’ memories match the story that the government researcher, Hiza Redsteer, has compiled with colleagues through interviews with 73 Navajo elders. The interviews are part of a forthcoming study of the Navajos’ vulnerability to climate change.

“Used to be a lot of running water in the wash,” said 70-year-old Levi Biggambler, who was born next to Jeddito Wash on the boundary with the Hopi Reservation and still lives there.

He recalls his family’s plots of corn, watermelon and other crops that he can no longer grow.

Hiza Redsteer’s study includes one resident’s memory that Jeddito Wash flowed consistently in the 1960s and 1970s, and many families planted fields there. Another recalled that in the 1930s the soil was moist to several centimeters in depth, because of deep snows.

Data from weather stations in the reservation’s Tsezhin Tah region north of Winslow indicate that annual snowfall that averaged about 17 inches in the 1930s declined steadily to 5 inches by the 21st century, Hiza Redsteer found.

Both the interviews and historic scientific journals recall widespread planting of corn and other crops along river floodplains, Hiza Redsteer said, where today there’s not enough water. Dry riverbeds are, instead, a major source of blowing dust.

Where snow has switched to winter rain, she said, the moisture is less able to sustain streams and springs through the dry times of year. Much of it runs away or evaporates quickly instead of melting into the soil, and increasing warmth makes shrubs and grasses thirstier.

The changes on Navajo land reflect a broader trend. Scientists say a warming climate threatens snowpack and moisture throughout the Colorado River basin, from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Though the snowpack decline that Hiza Redsteer tracked at six sites is stark, it’s impossible to put a number on the total century-long decline across the reservation. Numbers from a larger government network of snow stations are only available going back to the 1980s.

Data from those sites mostly demonstrate the effects of the past 15 years of drought, broken by a couple of wet winters brought on by ocean temperature shifts known as El Niño.

Margaret Hiza Redsteer, a geomorphologist with the

Margaret Hiza Redsteer, a geomorphologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, walks through sand dunes on the Navajo Nation outside of Teesto, Ariz. She says the crisis created by the drought in the Southwest “is … hitting the Navajo people first.” (Photo: David Wallace/The Republic)
  • Margaret Hiza Redsteer, a geomorphologist with the
  • Levi Biggambler, 70, and his his wife, Linda Biggambler,
  • Levi Biggambler his wife, Linda Biggambler fill containers
  • The Biggamblers begin the drive back home after filling
  • Levi Biggambler finishes the journey to get fresh drinking
  • The sand dunes near the Biggamblers' home on the Navajo
  • A pickup truck kicks up dust while driving on a dirt
  • Winds in April kick up dust at Canyon de Chelly National
  • Alice McCabe, 70, splashes water for her livestock
  • Light from solar arrays illuminates the face of Mitch
  • Robert Seaman, left, a University of Arizona chemical
  • A flower grows out of a dried lakebed, called a playa,

Several University of Arizona researchers who authored a 2012 paper on snowpack changes in the interior West found that as temperatures crept up in recent decades, snow and its moisture content declined. This was especially true in watersheds in the vicinity of the Navajo Reservation, including the San Juan River, which joins the Colorado at Lake Powell.

That drainage’s snowpack, on its highest day of winter, has lost about 2 inches of water per decade since the study data’s starting point in 1984. It shrank while temperatures warmed by 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade. Though rain replaced some snow, overall winter precipitation also declined.

The San Juan monitoring sites experienced the Southwest’s worst declines in the study, though the Lower Colorado — including the Salt and Verde rivers that help supply metro Phoenix — also lost snow and water.

Gregg Garfin, a University of Arizona climate scientist who helped write the Southwest chapter for a 2014 National Climate Assessment, noted that his colleagues also determined the snow is melting earlier and covering the ground fewer days.

“All snow-related parameters are going in the direction of less snow,” he said in an e-mail.

The National Climate Assessment that Garfin co-authored projected a dramatic decrease in the Arizona high country’s already skimpy snowpack if greenhouse gas emissions continue increasing. Measured against the late 20th-century average, Garfin’s team predicted 12 percent of normal moisture in the snowpack by 2100.

Upstream states that contribute the bulk of the Colorado River are not expected to suffer such losses, percentage-wise, though their losses will hurt the regional water balance more. Colorado, for instance, is the river’s biggest source and is projected to lose 26 percent of its snow moisture.

“We need every drop of water that we can get from the Colorado,” Garfin said.

A new source?


Robert Seaman, left, a University of Arizona chemical and environmental engineering research technician, and Seth Lawrence, a Northern Arizona University mechanical engineering undergraduate, repair a desalinization plant outside of Leupp, Ariz. (David Wallace/The Republic)


This summer the McCabes trekked from their Navajo homestead to a nearby community well, to hoist sticks atop a shade structure for their cattle milling around a trough there. The well is deep enough to draw water, but it’s tapping ancient seawater that is too salty for people — not the percolated snowmelt that once sustained people here.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, with help from University of Arizona engineering students, is working on that. They’ve assembled a solar-powered desalination plant next to the well to test a system that one day could be replicated across the reservation.

The well is clear of uranium contamination, a threat for many wells around a reservation that once hosted hundreds of unregulated uranium mines.

An array of photovoltaic panels and mirrors both pumps the water and heats it in a distilling process that recovers 95 percent of the water and dumps the rest with the salt. It’s working, but the researchers aren’t yet sure of the cost per gallon.

The technology that University of Arizona engineers are testing at a Navajo Reservation well uses solar energy to heat a nontoxic glycol solution, which in turn heats water for purification.

The heat vaporizes the water and increases pressure in a pipe containing thousands filter membranes arrayed like bunched-up straws. Pure water passes to the outside of the straw, but dissolved solids including salt can’t. This is the same process that orange juice suppliers use to remove water and make juice concentrate.

The resulting distilled water is mixed back with some of the source water to provide a suitable level of minerals and ions. The remaining unpurified water containing the concentrated brine is dumped into an evaporation pond.

The Bureau of Reclamation has given the university $75,000 in each of the past two years to work on the project, and will seek $150,000 next year for a parallel test of a reverse-osmosis system with the same power source, testing which is more efficient and reliable.

“This is one small component (of a regional water plan),” said Mitch Haws, the bureau’s project leader. “It this technology works, it will service about 135 households in the area.”

The goal, he said, is to perfect a system that can be replicated and turned over to the tribe’s local governments for routine operation and maintenance. He expects the remote plant to produce about 1,000 gallons of clean water daily for households and their livestock.

For now, there are still kinks. This summer Haws spent a morning trying to wrench the sun-tracking mirrors into proper alignment because blowing sand had locked up bearings in the automated system.

The water rising from this well is full of dissolved solids — essentially salt — at 1,400 parts per million. That’s double the levels in the Colorado River, and 400 parts per million above the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking standard.

But it’s just a fraction of the salt content in the ocean, about 35,000 parts per million. Haws believes solar desalination projects cleaning moderately salty water could be a major part of the Southwest’s future water security.

“We’ve dammed all the rivers that we’re going to dam,” he said. “I think desalination is the next source.”

Parched landscape


Alice McCabe splashes water on her 3-year-old grandson, Jayden. She uses the water for her livestock. (David Wallace/The Republic)


A functioning water treatment plant would save a lot of trips to town for residents like the McCabes and their neighbors near a seasonally parched stretch of the Little Colorado River.

“Tell them to hurry,” Alice McCabe said as they continued their journey to the well.

Her nephew, 53-year-old Raymond Stayne, lives at the dry homestead. He sometimes drives 80 miles to Oak Creek Canyon, south of Flagstaff, for spring water, because he believes it makes the best coffee. Sometimes, though, he just drinks from the salty well, “If I don’t have anything. If I’m dying of thirst.”

Tens of thousands of Navajos lack safe drinking water in or near their homes. They include more than 50,000 who haul from unregulated, potentially contaminated sources, according to tribal water officials.

The tribe may yet be awarded a needed slice of the Colorado River, as other tribes have through federal negotiations. But the river is a shrinking resource with no guarantee that even currently binding allocations will hold up in a future with vastly more Southwesterners.

Federal projections, thought conservative by many scientists, predict a river flowing about a tenth behind its historic pace by midcentury.

At Tolani Lake, northeast of Leupp, a flat that once routinely collected water streaming off a mesa is now a dry playa. It was a corn farming center in the 1970s, Hiza Redsteer said, but now grows only dry brush.

That brush and various invasive plants are sucking up more water as the cold season shrinks, she said. At nearly 5,000 feet elevation, the area experienced high temperatures in the 60s last January.

“When that happens,” researcher Hiza Redsteer said, “plants aren’t dormant in winter anymore.”

She believes the drying land and resulting difficulty raising livestock is forcing young Navajos to seek jobs elsewhere. The overall tribal population grew slightly between 2000 and 2010, but the U.S. Census found that the reservation population declined nearly 4 percent, to 174,000.

Ann-Marie Chischilly grew up on the reservation in Shonto, Ariz., and now is saddened when she returns from Flagstaff to the drought-stricken village. Medicinal plants that her grandparents taught her about no longer grow there.

“That little community used to be an oasis with lush yards and gardens,” she said. Now, “When it’s just a little bit windy, the dust is just unlivable.”

Chischilly directs the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University. She fears that continued drought will force more to truck their water as wells dry.

The tribe, she said, must plan for “surviving what could be a difficult time in our history.”

Read Part 2: Already a luxury, water gets more scarce for the poor

Read Part 4: Early snowmelt on the Rockies threatens Arizona’s water supply

EPA Water Pressure evidently never checked before Colorado mine spiill

Via San Juan Citizens Alliance Page

EPA’s internal report on the Gold King Mine blowout released details about what exactly went wrong. An independent investigation is also being done.
This highlights the need for extensive resources to address the other 22,000 old mines in Colorado.

Denver West-Denver Post-Agency says, Gold King Mine not checked for water volume. By John Paul The Denver Post
Animas River pollution

August 13: One of the retention ponds underneath the Gold King Mine on August 13, 2015. The San Juan County and the city of Silverton have a rich mining history with hundreds of mines being in the county including the Gold King Mine which spilled wastewater into the Animas River. Many of these mines were left abandoned or not properly bulkheaded which opens the possibility of wastewater draining into the rivers and creeks below. (Brent Lewis, Denver Post file photo)

Dangerously high levels of water pressure behind the collapsed opening of the Gold King Mine were never checked by the Environmental Protection Agency, in part because of cost and time concerns.

The revelations came Wednesday as the EPA released an internal review of a massive Aug. 5 blowout at the mine above Silverton. The report called an underestimation of the pressure the most significant factor leading to the spill.

According to the report, had crews drilled into the mine’s collapsed opening, as they had done at a nearby site, they “may have been able to discover the pressurized conditions that turned out to cause the blowout.”

The EPA-triggered wastewater release sent yellow-orange sludge cascading through three states and the land of two American Indian tribes. The internal review for the first time reveals what the EPA believes went wrong at Gold King, which 14 months before the spill they knew was at risk for blowout.

“It is not evident that the potential volume of water stored within the (mine’s opening) had been estimated,” the review said. “Given the maps and information known about this mine, a worst-case scenario estimate could have been calculated and used for planning purposes.”

According to the review, drilling into the collapsed opening would have been “quite costly” and taken more time because of soil and rock conditions at the site.The review says crews believed that because water was leaking from the Gold King and based on seep levels above its opening, a buildup of pressure was “less likely.” Because of those signs, officials say, drilling appeared to be unnecessary.

“The mine was draining,” Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator in the office of solid waste and emergency response, said Wednesday during a media conference call.

EPA supervisor Hays Griswold, who was at the scene of the blowout Aug. 5, told The Denver Post in an interview this month that conditions in the mine were worse than anticipated.

“Nobody expected (the acid water backed up in the mine) to be that high,” he said.

The report says, however, that decreased wastewater flows from the mine, which had been leaching for years, could have offered a clue to the pressurization. Also, a June 2014 task order about work at the mine said “conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages.”

The inability to obtain an actual measurement of the mine water pressure behind the mine’s blocked opening “seems to be a primary issue,” according to the review. It went on to say that if the pressure information had been obtained, other steps could have been considered.

It did not elaborate on what those steps could have been.

Stan Meiburg, EPA’s deputy administrator, said during the call that “provisions for a worst-case scenario were not included in the work plan.”

The review, summarized in an 11-page report and led by five EPA workers from multiple EPA regions and headquarters, includes a list of recommendations for further agency mine work throughout the country, including new approaches to mines at risk of blowout and emergency action plans to deal with such disasters.

The investigative team called the mine’s blowout “inevitable” and said actions by those at the scene — who the review said had “extensive experience” — probably prevented fatalities.

The Department of the Interior is conducting an external review of the spill, and it is expected to be released in October. The Congressional Science, Space and Technology Committee also is investigating the blowout.

Cynthia Coffman, Colorado’s attorney general, on Wednesday said the EPA’s internal report is still being mulled over by her office. She and her counterparts in New Mexico and Utah say they are weighing a lawsuit against the EPA.

The Navajo Nation says it intends to sue.

“A non-federal, independent review is a must,” Coffman said in a statement to The Post. “I don’t trust the EPA or this administration to investigate itself. It would have never allowed BP to investigate the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Jesse Paul: 303-954-1733, or

Southern Ute Tribe Declares Disaster Over Mining Spill in Animas River

Courtesy La Plata Office of Emergency Management
The Animas River as it appeared on August 6, 2015, a day after a contractor working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally let loose three million gallons of toxic sludge. The river flows through the Southern Ute Tribe reservation.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the first to watch a 100-mile-long plume of toxic mining sludge flow through their reservation in the Animas River, has declared a state of local disaster.

“The cost and magnitude of responding to and recovery from the impact of the water contamination from the Gold King Mine Animas River Spill, caused by the EPA on August 5, 2015 is far in excess of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s available resources,” the tribe said in its declaration.

The spill, unleashed accidentally on August 5 by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency workers trying to remediate contamination at the Gold King Mine in Colorado, sent three million gallons of wastewater into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River and from there to the San Juan River, then to the Colorado River in Utah. Before making its way to the Navajo Nation, the plume containing heavy metals including arsenic and lead wound through the 1,059-square-mile Southern Ute reservation in Colorado.

RELATED:Video: Toxic Mining Wastewater Spill Turns Animas River Lurid Orange in Colorado

The EPA has been sampling the water up and down the spill route, but test results were still pending as of Wednesday August 12. Southern Ute tribal officials are also monitoring the situation, the tribe said in a statement, coordinating responses with other jurisdictions as well. Drinking-water testing is available to tribal members who live in the Animas watershed, the statement said.

“The environmental and economic consequences of this disaster will not be known for some time, but the Tribe is doing everything in its power to respond to this terrible situation and safeguard the health of our tribal members, the aquatic life, and other affected natural resources,” said Tribal Chairman Clement J. Frost in the statement.

Classifying it as a local disaster activates the response and recovery aspects and enables aid to be released. The worst of the plume of toxic sludge has already passed, but the lasting effects on water quality and wildlife is not yet known. Tribal officials said the river will be closed until at least Friday August 14.

Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visited Durango, Colorado and said the spill had passed and the water had returned to the condition they were in before it happened, theDenver Postreported on August 12. But she did not specify when it might be safe, or advisable, to reopen the river.



Summer 2012 Tufts Magazine: LETTERS URANIUM AND THE NAVAJOSLeslie Macmillan’s article “Tainted Desert” (Winter 2012), about Professor Doug Brugge’s work on uranium contamination, is most accurate and informative. It is important to realize that uranium mining in Arizona continues. Indeed, there is a movement to expand into the greater area of the Grand Canyon. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has come under intense pressure to allow new mining there. Apparently we have learned nothing regarding the unintended costs of uranium mining.
Earle B. Hoyt Jr., G66
Professor of Chemistry Emeritus, Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, Arizona

I read “Tainted Desert” with great interest, since I, too, have spent time on the Navajo reservation. Back in the late sixties, I helped document the environmental issues associated with uranium near Tuba City and Mexican Hat. Interestingly, similar work conducted on the Colorado plateau led to the discovery of the “indoor radon” problem.
Bob Snelling, E62
Holderness, New Hampshire

“Tainted Desert” reminded me of a similar situation on the St. Regis Mohawk Akwesasne Reservation in northern New York State. But in this instance, fortunately, strong local protests led to a solution.

Two corporations, Alcoa and GM, had dumped PCBs, mercury, dioxins, and other pollutants into the nearby St. Lawrence River for many years, causing serious health issues for a tribe already burdened with tuberculosis, diabetes, and poverty. After many fighting years and a major lawsuit, a federal Superfund was created, and now a billion dollars worth of cleanup, education, and monitoring has been done.
Laura Chodos, J49
Saratoga Springs, New York

Looks to me like Doug Brugge should amble down to Anderson Hall and convince someone to develop a cheap solar water distiller for the Navajos whose water supplies have been contaminated with uranium.
Art Merrow, E67
Colchester, Connecticut

TURNPIKE WOES “The Toll” (Winter 2012), by Vestal McIntyre, A94, resonates with me, as the Maine Turnpike Authority has been turning up in the local news often these days. The deteriorating southern toll station has been a major issue, as has the behavior of the previous turnpike administrator, Paul Violette, who has pled guilty to charges of theft and is now headed for the lockup.
David Lincoln, A52
Kittery, Maine

PRIDE OF DONORSHIP The message of Seth Godin, E82, in “Pick Yourself” (Winter 2012) is right on. I’ve been in the National Bone Marrow Donor Program’s registry since 1994, and every time they get in touch with me to verify or update my contact information, I think, “Boy, I really hope I’m a match for someone someday.” I can’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like to get that phone call.
Jeanne D. Breen, MD, J83
Old Saybrook, Connecticut

KIND WORDS As a magazine editorial board member (Foreign Service Journal for the past nine years), I want to commend you on the latest issue of Tufts Magazine. I really like the layout, articles, photos, and overall content. The articles are short enough so that you can easily go from one to another, and the layout helps carry you through the magazine. A class act. Keep up the good work.
Stephen W. Buck, F63, F76
Bethesda, Maryland

I just wanted to tell you what a great magazine you put out. The articles are usually interesting and well written. It is not just a vehicle for class notes and fundraising like so many other alumni magazines that we just throw out.
Keith Taylor, A64
Wenham, Massachusetts

Just a quick note to say how much I enjoy Tufts Magazine. It is a beautifully designed publication that is always entertaining, educational, varied in subject matter, and extremely interesting.
Kehheth J. Billings, M65
Marshfield, Wisconsin

MOYNIHAN’S MONIKER In the Fall 2011 issue of Tufts Magazine, I came upon the quote from former New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, A48, F49, F61, H68, under the heading “Dan Pat.” I am afraid you got the name wrong. I was Senator Moynihan’s state director, and never once did I hear anybody call him Dan Pat. He was either Senator Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, or just Pat to his friends and family.
Ross A. Frommer, A85
Bronx, New York

Point taken. The recurring item formerly known as “Dan Pat” is now “D.P.M.” —Editor

CORRECTIONS In the Fall 2011 issue (page 71), we blew a rare opportunity to correctly spell the name of the West African country Burkina Faso. In the Winter 2012 issue (page 46), we misspelled the name of the late film director Gary Winick, A84, and swapped the credits of Jeff Strauss (Dream On, Friends, and Titus & Reba) and Jeff Greenstein (Friends, Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, and Parenthood), both A84. We regret the errors.

Winter 2012 Tufts Magazine: Tainted Desert Struggling to reclaim their health and land after decades of uranium mining, the Navajos find a strong advocate at Tufts

Winter 2012 Tainted Desert Struggling to reclaim their health and land after decades of uranium mining, the Navajos find a strong advocate at TuftsTainted Desert: Struggling to reclaim their health and land after decades of uranium mining, the Navajos find a strong advocate at Tufts BY LESLIE MACMILLAN
Photo by Leslie Macmillan:
As a boy, Doug Brugge lived in a double-wide trailer on the Navajo reservation, near an old Indian trading post. It was a modest dwelling, but the towering mesas and red valleys of the West were his backyard. “You could just run out the back door and play,” says Brugge, whose father worked as an anthropologist for the Navaho Nation and the National Park Service. But there were dangers, too. Flash floods would fill the arroyos, and children could fall in and drown. And one time his sister brought home a new pet in a Dixie cup—a scorpion—that made their mother scream.

It wasn’t until he traveled back to the reservation at the age of thirty-two that Brugge realized a far greater danger had lurked all around him: the sacred land of the Navajos—which had once supplied America’s nuclear weapons program—silently throbs with radiation.

From 1944 to 1986, nearly four million tons of uranium ore was extracted from the reservation, an area the size of West Virginia that spans northeastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah. When demand for uranium dried up at the end of the Cold War, the mining companies simply abandoned the roughly thirteen hundred mines, leaving behind radioactive waste piles known as uranium tailings. Navajos inhaled radioactive dust and drank water contaminated with uranium, arsenic, and other heavy metals, and the cancer death rate there doubled, according to Indian Health Service data.

Brugge, who had gone east to earn a Ph.D. in cellular and developmental biology and an M.S. in industrial hygiene from Harvard and had become a professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine, wanted to understand what had happened to the land and the people he had known as a child. He also wanted to practice science without being “stuck in a lab,” and he reasoned that investigating radiation on the reservation would give him a way to stay in the field. “I wrote my first grant and it got funded. That was a revelation,” says Brugge (pronounced “briggy”). “I figured, if I can keep writing grants, I can make this work for me.”

Grants subsidized Brugge’s first book, Memories Come to Us in the Rain and the Wind, published in 1997, a series of interviews he and two partners conducted with Navajos affected by uranium mining. Next he wrote papers on uranium for peer-reviewed journals. He testified before Congress for the Navajo government. He became a conservationist and an ardent student of uranium.

“Uranium ore has all these things in it—radium, thorium, uranium,” Brugge says. He explains that the ore’s deadly properties are released only when it is dug up. “Radium decays into radon, and radon decays into a whole series of radioactive isotopes very quickly that are giving off all these alpha particles. When these particles lodge in your lung, that is a disaster for your health. They cause lung cancer.”

Today, Brugge is a leading expert on uranium, and consults on nuclear policy issues worldwide. But he also devotes much of his time to the ravaged homeland of the Navajo people, intent on bringing about some measure of what he calls environmental justice. He presses for health studies and works with federal and tribal organizations on legislation to clean up mine waste and compensate miners who get sick from uranium. He shares both his scientific expertise and his knowledge of the place where he grew up, a place where people can be mistrustful of outsiders and skeptical of government interference.

The view from the top of the Skyline Mine in Monument Valley, Utah, is straight out of an old John Ford Western—a sweeping panorama of a valley edged by cliffs and twisted fingers of rock. Eight hundred feet below the former uranium mine, at the bottom of the valley, sits the tiny hogan of a Navajo grandmother named Elsie Begay.

Thirty years ago, Begay had the concrete floor of her traditional Navajo home built out of material that was free and readily available and, unbeknownst to her, radioactive: loose rock that had washed down the mesa where the Skyline mine had once operated. After losing two sons—one to a brain tumor, the other to lung cancer—Begay asked for help, and Doug Brugge was among those who responded.

Brugge learned that Begay’s children had played on the floor and that family members had slept either on mattresses directly on the floor or on carpets. “All these scenarios mean that heads, bodies, and reproductive organs rested for lengthy periods directly on the source of radiation,” he says.

The Environmental Protection Agency tested the house. Sure enough, the agency found that the level of radiation “would result in an exposure that is about forty-four times larger than is considered acceptable” by both its own standards and those of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says Brugge. A documentary, The Return of Navajo Boy, for which Brugge served as scientific consultant, aired on PBS in 2000 and touched off a flood of publicity. A 2005 series in the Los Angeles Times that also told Elsie Begay’s story helped bring attention to the Navajos’ predicament.

In 2007, after decades of government indifference, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), then chair of the House Oversight Committee, pressed for immediate action. He held a congressional hearing at which Brugge testified as a scientific witness for the Navajo Nation, describing how waste from uranium mining can cause cancer and urging more research. “If we are to understand the full extent of this injustice, we will need additional health studies,” Brugge said. Following the hearing, the government enacted a five-year, multi-agency initiative to remediate the worst of the contaminated structures on the reservation, and Skyline was the first site slated for cleanup.

The problems were far from over, however. The initial plan for Skyline was to remove two piles of contaminated soil from the bottom of the mesa. But Jason Musante, who oversaw the $7.5 million Skyline cleanup for the EPA, soon learned that the job was bigger. “As I was looking up, there was visible mine waste—this grayish material,” he says. “I realized—that stuff is going to keep coming down. We’ve got to get that, too.” Crews ended up using an excavator to scoop some twenty thousand cubic yards of waste from the valley floor and haul it with a motorized pulley to the mesa top. They also had to improve the existing dirt roads, which were no wider than mule paths, for use by heavy trucks.

At the same time, Musante was grappling with deep-rooted mistrust on the Navajo reservation. “It takes a little while for people to open up out here,” he says. “Typically, Navajos don’t do big displays of emotion. They can be angry or happy and you’ll never know. That’s just cultural, it’s not anything personal.” The cultural barrier was not the only issue, though.

The truth is that the Navajos had every reason to be wary, according to Brugge. “By the start of uranium mining in the U.S. in the late forties,” he says, “government scientists understood that radon causes lung cancer. That’s the basis for saying this was a serious ethical failure on the part of the federal government. They should have regulated it, they should have protected people, but instead they studied them for another fifteen years and watched it happen.”

Countering this rocky history called for diplomacy. For two years before the actual cleanup, Musante was flying out to the reservation to meet with Navajo leaders and begin addressing their concerns. He says he “bent over backwards” to find solutions agreeable to the community. Still, there was one wish he was not able to accommodate: to move all the contaminated waste someplace else. His solution was to bury the waste in a giant plastic-lined repository on top of the mesa. “This material is not screaming hot, and there’s literally not enough money to drive all of it off Navajo lands,” he says. “That’s a political issue, because the Navajos say ’We want this stuff off our land.’ But it’s their land. This is their stuff.”

The cleanup of Skyline was completed in October 2011 and hailed as a milestone by the EPA. But many Navajos are still skeptical. “That’s what they want you to see—something that’s all nice and cleaned up,” says the Navajo manager of a hotel near Skyline, who asked not to be identified. He says he and “a buddy” were taking water samples from the San Juan River in back of his hotel and sending them to a private lab in Phoenix for testing. The operation, he says, “was shut down by the Feds. The government doesn’t want people to know that Navajos are living in a hot area.”

In the dust-choked towns and ramshackle outcroppings of trailers and cinderblock dwellings on the reservation, water is an all-consuming issue. Homes frequently lack running water and indoor plumbing. Worse, one out of three Navajos has no access to clean drinking water. Many wells and springs are still contaminated with uranium, in addition to arsenic and other heavy metals left over from mining. “This is not Haiti; it’s here in the United States—people without potable drinking water,” Brugge observes.

Some Navajos, like Wilbur Huskin, who is fifty-five, today rue a lifetime’s exposure to contaminated water. “The government didn’t tell us the water was no good,” he says, remembering that it always had a strange consistency. “It was thick,” he says. “Like syrup.”

Huskin’s family suffers from a variety of ills, some of which may be attributable to drinking tainted water, others of which could stem from working in the mines. His brother Jerry Huskon—the surname is spelled differently because they attended different schools—is a former miner who has lung cancer. Jerry’s wife, Florabell, has a long list of health issues, including asthma, bronchitis, anemia, and liver problems. Ten years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer of the gall bladder. The three live together in a hogan surrounded by red cliffs and mesas and buttressed by American flags they have posted around the property.

When asked if he thinks the government knew the water was contaminated, Wilbur Huskin responds, “I know they knew. They had engineers come through doing surveys and they were wearing masks.”

For many, the only way to get clean water is to haul it from remote locations, a weekly chore that takes hours and requires lifting heavy barrels. The water must then be siphoned into smaller buckets for daily use.

Ronald Tohannie, a sturdy fifty-four-year-old Navajo with black-framed glasses and worker’s hands, is accustomed to the job. On a hot day in August, he loads his pickup truck with two blue plastic fifty-five-gallon drums and drives for an hour to a community well. Using a government-issued “water card” he unlocks a spigot. The brownish water reeks of sulfur, but it is regularly tested for contamination and has been deemed safe to drink by the U.S. government.

Tohannie just wishes he could bring home more of it. “You get kind of stingy with the water,” he says with a chuckle, pointing out that the 110 gallons he hauls must last his family of six one week. It is used for drinking, livestock, cooking, laundry, and bathing—in that order. “Usually we don’t have enough at the end of the week,” he says. “So we bathe in the river.” Tohannie has taken on the role of project manager for water with a grassroots organization called Forgotten People, whose projects range from lobbying for legislation against new mining activities to trucking clean water onto the reservation.

In January 2011, Forgotten People asked Brugge’s help in assessing an EPA report performed on a newly discovered uranium mine, Site 457. A cattle rancher had stumbled upon its crumbling concrete structure in the middle of the desert. Back in Boston, Brugge glances at the report, which is sitting on his desk. He shakes his head. “Why are people on the ground out there identifying sites that aren’t on any lists—after all this time? It’s a vast area, that’s some of it,” he says, his voice trailing. “But it’s still hard to understand. It makes you wonder how much more that we don’t know about is still out there.”

Brugge finds this site particularly worrisome, as it lies close to the Little Colorado River Basin. “The contamination could be moving from the site into the Colorado River,” he says. “Contamination can leach slowly for decades, depending on the movement of water. I’m not a hydrologist, but it seems likely that groundwater would flow toward the river, since that is almost always the case when a site is in the immediate vicinity of a river.” The Colorado supplies drinking water to millions of people, from Arizona to California.

On the other side of the reservation, Alice Tso, age eighty, sits on a makeshift patio that offers some shade from the searing desert sun. She is flanked by the trappings typical of dwellings in the poorest part of the Navajo reservation—a rickety wooden outhouse, spent propane canisters used for cooking, and a pair of blue fifty-five-gallon drums. Plastic chairs are set out for visitors, who are offered coffee and Twinkies.

Tso was operated on for kidney cancer in her forties and has been living with one kidney ever since. Her forty-five-year-old daughter Linda Tso Begay (no relation to Elsie Begay) has a urinary tract infection that dates from childhood. Normally, such infections clear up in a matter of days with antibiotics, but Begay’s Indian Health Service doctors in Tuba City have not been able to cure her. Now they’re worried that it is a precursor to kidney cancer—the same disease her mother has. “With my condition, I’m not ashamed to say I have to pee all the time,” she says. “Sometimes I soak a pad with hot water and put it between my legs, and that’s the only thing that helps.”

The local well water is known to be contaminated. “My dad has been bringing that water since we were little,” she says. Asked if she still drinks the same well water, she responds, “Sometimes.” Asked if she is afraid, knowing the danger, she shrugs. “If it was blue or red maybe. But it’s clear and cold and it still tastes good to us. And at times,” she confesses, “there is no choice.”

Tso and her daughter have never received any compensation for their illnesses because they have not been able to prove a link to uranium. Brugge says this is typical, and it’s the reason health studies are so important. “The vast majority of research has been on miners, and the research base on the community is very shallow,” he notes. “That is not just a political problem, it’s also a scientific problem.” Yet while he acknowledges that “there’s a lot we don’t know,” he takes pains to remind people of what we do know. An article he coauthored, recently published in the scientific journal Reviews on Environmental Health, reports that new studies suggest uranium harms the brain and reproductive system. It also points out that longstanding evidence indicates uranium is a kidney toxin as well as a cause of genetic damage and birth defects.

Linda Begay, for her part, seems resigned to her lot and mostly looks toward the future. She has three children, in their late teens and early twenties. Hers is one of the families that could benefit from Forgotten People’s recent EPA-funded pilot project to truck clean water to the reservation from outside. A 500-gallon drum, almost ten times the size of the barrels the family currently uses, sits in the shed still in its plastic wrap.

“I wish they would have discovered this a long time ago,” she says of the contamination on Navajo lands. “Maybe I would have had a better life. I would have stayed in school and maybe moved to another place, off the reservation. That’s why I push my kids to do more. Even if I have a health problem, they’ll never look back and worry about me. I don’t want that. I want them to move on.”

Brugge, too, has his eyes on the next generation of Navajos. Last November he traveled to the Red Valley/Cove High School in Red Valley, Arizona, to give a talk and help develop a curriculum about the effects of uranium. “It’s a particular strength of the Navajos,” he says, “that these young people are so respectful of their elders and concerned about them and about learning from their experience. I see hope in the young Navajos.”

Even the knowledge that the five-year government cleanup plan is set to end in 2012 doesn’t discourage him. “There is a long way to go, but they are making a start. Thoroughly remediating some of the worst mines, laying pipe to bring clean water to hundreds of homes previously without. Trucking water to other homes. The important thing is that they keep on this path and not give up.”

LESLIE MACMILLAN, a Boston-area freelance writer, has written for the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald, and her short fiction and book reviews have been published in the Gettysburg Review, the Charles River Review, and the Harvard Review.

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