Tag Archives: Usgs

10/3/2011 Health Care News: It's elemental: Many private wells across U.S. are contaminated with arsenic and other elements

“An estimated 15 million U.S. households regularly depend on private, unregulated and unmonitored water wells.”10/3/2011 Health Care News: It’s elemental: Many private wells across U.S. are contaminated with arsenic and other elements In Nebraska, along the Platte River, it’s uranium. In Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, it’s arsenic. In California, boron. And in the Texas Panhandle, lithium. Throughout the nation, metals and other elements are tainting private drinking water wells at concentrations that pose a health concern. For one element – manganese – contamination is so widespread that water wells with excessive levels are found in all but just a few states. Arsenic, too, is a national problem, scattered in every region.

In the first national effort to monitor well water for two dozen trace elements, geologists have discovered that 13 percent of untreated drinking water contains at least one element at a concentration that exceeds federal health regulations or guidelines. That rate far outpaces other contaminants, including industrial chemicals and pesticides. The most troubling finding involves the widespread contamination of private wells, which are unmonitored and unregulated.

By Marla Cone, Editor in Chief: In Nebraska, along the Platte River, it’s uranium. In Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, it’s arsenic. In California, boron. And in the Texas Panhandle, lithium.

Throughout the nation, metals and other elements are tainting private drinking water wells at concentrations that pose a health concern.

For one element – manganese – contamination is so widespread that water wells with excessive levels are found in all but just a few states. Arsenic, too, is a national problem, scattered in every region.

In the first national effort to monitor wells for two dozen trace elements, geologists have discovered that 13 percent of untreated drinking water contains at least one element at a concentration that exceeds federal health regulations or guidelines. That rate far outpaces other contaminants in well water, including industrial chemicals and pesticides.

For public wells, the discovery is less of a concern, since water suppliers regularly test for contaminants and remove them to comply with federal standards. The most troubling finding involves the widespread contamination of private wells, which are unmonitored and unregulated.

“It was a bit surprising how many of these trace elements had exceedances of human health benchmarks, especially compared to other contaminants we are often concerned about,” said Joseph Ayotte, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, which conducted the research. “The findings certainly underscore the message we hear from the public health agencies, that everyone should test their wells for a suite of trace elements.”

Long abandoned gold processing vats leave a legacy of cyanide and arsenic contamination near Genola, Utah.

An estimated 15 million U.S. households – about 60 million people – regularly depend on private water wells, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most private well owners occasionally test for bacteria, but rarely, if ever, test for anything else.

“The findings certainly underscore the message we hear from the public health agencies, that everyone should test their wells for a suite of trace elements.” – Joseph Aotte, USGS

Nearly half of all drinking water in the country comes from ground water, and usage is increasing worldwide as freshwater supplies from rivers are running low and encumbered by bitter feuds.

“Ground water is very important. It’s the invisible link to our water supply that people don’t really think about,” said David Wunsch, director of science and technology at the National Ground Water Assn. “It’s underground – out of sight, out of mind – and that’s exactly why we’ve come across the pollution problems we have.”

The geologists tested more than 5,000 wells in 40 aquifers for 23 elements – all metals and metal-like substances – plus radon.

Drier regions of the country, mostly in the West, had more wells with excessive trace elements than humid regions, and urban areas had more than agricultural areas.

“Wells with human health benchmark exceedances were widespread across the United States; they occurred in all aquifer groups and in both humid and dry regions,” the report says.

People usually test their well water only when it tastes funny or smells bad, says one scientist.

Arsenic, uranium and manganese most frequently exceeded either health standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency or health-based guidelines developed by the USGS and the EPA. Arsenic, radon and chromium are carcinogens, uranium and cadmium can damage kidneys and manganese might have neurological effects. Boron might lead to smaller fetuses and damage to male reproductive organs, while barium can cause high blood pressure and lithium can suppress the thyroid.

“Trace elements are a widespread chronic health problem,” Wunsch said. “It’s not like something that’s really dramatic where people will get sick right away, but the public needs to be informed more. Some of the things listed here – arsenic, barium, lead, cadmium, for example – can be toxic in small quantities.”

Wunsch said people usually test their well water only when it tastes funny or smells bad. “Private well water is not regulated like the public water supply is. So it’s up to the homeowner to take care of it himself,” he said.

Drier regions of the country, mostly in the West, had more wells with excessive trace elements than humid regions, and urban areas had more than agricultural areas.Mary McClintock has been drinking well water since she bought her home in Conway, Mass., 27 years ago. “I remember having the well tested before buying the house, and perhaps at one other time early on,” she said.

McClintock said she has no health concerns about her water, although a friend who lives in Leverett 15 miles away discovered his well water had excessive arsenic after he tested it at the recommendation of state officials. He and his family now drink bottled water.

“Why haven’t I tested my well? No particular reason except assuming it is a deep well and not in danger of contamination,” she said.

The USGS maps show that arsenic is mostly a problem in parts of New England east of where McClintock lives. But geologists say that it’s a misconception to believe that deeper wells are safer. Elements can be found at any depth, and some, like arsenic, are even worse in deeper wells.

“We actually anticipate that deeper wells should have more arsenic than shallow ones based on the geochemistry of mobilization of arsenic. But high concentrations can occur at any depth if the geochemical conditions are right,” Ayotte said. Sand and gravel soils are most conducive to contamination, which also depends on factors such as pH and climate.

Overall, 19 percent of the 5,183 untreated public, private and monitoring wells exceeded the health-based levels. When private drinking water wells were separated from the pack, 13 percent exceeded the health standards or guidelines.

But that national average is a bit deceptive, since some regions have a far greater frequency of problems. Hot spots for elements are congregated in clusters.

Geologists say it’s a misconception to believe that deeper wells are safer. Elements can be found at any depth, and some, like arsenic, are even worse in deeper wells.Eastern New England, for example, has a cluster of high arsenic concentrations. “What we did not know was how to connect the dots in New England states,” Ayotte said. “It became apparent [in the new study] that the high arsenic values formed a contiguous belt between three states, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.”

They also found that manganese is “widespread but more prevalent in the East. It’s similar with arsenic, you can find it almost anywhere at high levels,” said Ayotte, lead author of the USGS study, also authored by Jo Ann Gronberg and Lori Apodaca.

Other arsenic hot spots include the Sacramento and Los Angeles regions of California, western Nevada, the Phoenix area, the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico along the Rio Grande, according to the new study’s maps. Others are found in Illinois, Ohio, south Florida and New Jersey.

“Arsenic is definitely a national problem with a local flavor,” Ayotte said.

Officials recommend that homeowners have their wells tested not just for bacteria, but for trace elements and other contaminants.

Most elements found in ground water are derived from natural sources, since they are part of the Earth’s crust. But even though the source is overwhelmingly natural, “the conditions that make it go into the water are not always natural,” Ayotte said. Elements can contaminate water from farms, urban runoff, mining and factories, either directly or by altering aquifer conditions to mobilize them in rocks and soil.

The EPA has set enforceable drinking water standards for 11 trace elements, what Wunsch called “the really nasty ones.” But others, including manganese, have only USGS guidelines based on a small number of health studies.

Private wells are not subject to federal standards because there are tens of millions of them, which would make it unenforceable.

Instead, EPA officials said in response to the new findings that people should test their private wells “if they suspect possible contamination.” The new USGS maps are useful for well owners who want to check the hot spots.

Testing a well for arsenic costs as little as $15 to $30, while treatment systems for removing arsenic cost $1,200 to $3,000, according to the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection.

The report notes that elements “far outpace” other pollutants, many of which get far more public attention. The 19 percent compares with 7 percent for nitrates and 1 to 2 percent for pesticides and volatile organic compounds, based on previous USGS research.

“We often get more upset about these anthropogenic contaminants but we have to remember that these naturally occurring elements are oftentimes more of a widespread problem,” Ayotte said. “Not to diminish the importance of the others, but trace elements are also hugely important and arguably more so.”

7/28/2011 Navajo Times: Report: Mining depleted N-Aquifer more than predicted

7/28/2011 Navajo Times: Report: Mining depleted N-Aquifer more than predicted By Cindy Yurth, Tséyi’ Bureau A newly released study of the springs around Peabody Western Coal Co.’s mining operations on Black Mesa concludes the company’s use of water for mining and slurrying coal depleted Navajo Aquifer storage by 21,000 to 53,000 acre-feet – more than 6,700 acre-feet over what the company’s consultants predicted. The study by Daniel Higgins, who holds a Ph.D. in arid lands resource science from the University of Arizona, also concludes Peabody’s predictions were based on a flawed model that was then used to inform both the Office of Surface Mining’s hydrologic impact assessment and a subsequent environmental impact statement for the mine – and that over the 15 years the Black Mesa Mine was in full production, nobody ever checked to make sure the aquifer was behaving as predicted.

Four environmental groups – Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, Tó Nizhóníçní, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity – are submitting the report to the OSM as part of their comments on an environmental assessment currently underway, and have asked OSM to hold a public hearing on Higgins’ findings.

Peabody, meanwhile, disputes the report.

“The issues raised by activists long opposed to mining are heavy on rhetoric and light on facts,” reads a statement released by the company in response to Higgins’ research. “The Navajo Aquifer is healthy and robust, and mining has not harmed any regional water supplies.”

Higgins said he’s letting his data speak for itself.

“I gathered all the studies that had to do with Black Mesa dating back to the 1940s, including the environmental impact statements and groundwater models,” he explained. “Then I evaluated the accuracy of the predictions in the environmental impact statements.”

Higgins checked the levels and flows for wells and springs about which predictions had been made and found that, in general, the water level decline Peabody attributed to mining withdrawals was underestimated and the water level decline attributed to municipal withdrawals were overestimated. Over the years, no one had checked to make sure the model was working.

“When in comes to environmental impact statements, whether it’s a new project or revisions to an existing one, once a decision has been made there is no requirement to validate the predictions in that impact statement,” Higgins said.

In the case of Kayenta, for example, the model predicted 85 to 87 percent of the decline in the level of the N-Aquifer under Kayenta would be due to drawdown from municipal wells – even though Peabody was pumping 4,085 acre-feet per year while Kayenta pumped 567.

Higgins found a strong correlation between the water level decline in Kayenta and the rate of Peabody withdrawals, but there was no statistically significant relationship between Kayenta’s municipal withdrawals and water level decline.

Higgins also found that, during the six months in 1985 when the Mohave Generating Station was idled for repairs and Peabody stopped pumping water to slurry coal to the station, the water level in many wells throughout the aquifer increased.

“I can’t say for certain that the mine was responsible for that,” he said, “but there was a pretty dramatic spike in many of the wells in the area.”

While the model predicted there would be no seepage between the lower-quality D-Aquifer and the N-Aquifer, the USGS did find some of the water sources became more contaminated with particulates, arsenic and other pollutants over the years the N-Aquifer was pumped, the report stated.

“Whether that is due to seepage is unclear,” Higgins said. “We know very little about the D-Aquifer.”

Perhaps the major problem with the predictions, according to Higgins, is that they were based on a water-budget model that the USGS intended as a learning tool, not a management tool.

“What water-budget modeling does is to treat water like a bank account,” Higgins explained. “As long as withdrawals don’t exceed deposits, then everything is thought to be sustainable.”

Reality, however, is more complex.

The water-budget approach assumes the climate and precipitation rates will stay the same, which they rarely do, Higgins said. It also assumes the water will be replaced fairly quickly.

“The USGS determined in 1997 that 90 percent of the water in the N-Aquifer is between 10,000 and 35,000 years old,” he said. “It’s fossil groundwater. It can’t be replenished on a human time scale.”

In its statement, however, Peabody begs to differ.

“Studies demonstrate that mining will use less than one-tenth of one percent of the volume of water stored in the aquifer over the life of the operations and that the aquifer will recharge rapidly,” the statement reads. “Current evaluation of the Black Mesa wellfield confirms the aquifer is recovering and reacting as modeling has forecast.”

Peabody added water from the N-Aquifer to ground coal to form a slurry that was piped to the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., until 2005, when the power plant shut down.

The company currently uses 1,200 acre-feet per year for dust suppression and drinking water at its Kayenta Mine, for which it pays the Navajo and Hopi tribes $1.1 million annually, according to its statement.

The Kayenta Mine transports its output by rail to the Navajo Generating Station in Page.

6/21/2011 Gallup Independent: Off Limits Interior protects 1 million Grand Canyon acres

6/21/2011 Gallup Independent: Off Limits Interior protects 1 million Grand Canyon acres By Kathy Helms Dine Bureau: WINDOW ROCK – U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said Monday that he will make an emergency withdrawal for six months of approximately 1 million acres of federal lands near the Grand Canyon to protect it from new uranium mining claims while the Bureau of Land Management completes its study on a 20-year mineral withdrawal. Salazar made the announcement at the Mather Point Amphitheater in Grand Canyon National Park where he was joined by BLM Director Bob Abbey, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt. An order will be published in the Federal Register within the next week. A final Environmental Impact Statement that evaluates a preferred alternative of a 20-year mineral withdrawal on those same lands is expected to be released this fall. Salazar directed BLM to identify the full 1 million acre uranium withdrawal as the preferred alternative. But even if selected, it will not stop uranium mining in northern Arizona.

“Uranium, like oil and gas, solar, wind, geothermal, and other sources, remains a vital component of a responsible and comprehensive energy strategy. We will continue to develop uranium in northern Arizona, Wyoming and other places across the country,” he said.

There are possibly a number of valid existing rights in the proposed withdrawal area, according to Salazar, and he expects continued development of those claims and the establishment of new mines over the next 20 years.

“In fact, cautious development with strong oversight could help us answer critical questions about water quality and environmental impacts of uranium mining in the area. This science, derived from experience, would help others decide what actions are necessary to protect the Grand Canyon,” Salazar said.

The lands are within portions of the Grand Canyon watershed next to the park and contain vast archaeological resources and sites of spiritual and cultural importance to about a dozen American Indian tribes, among them Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, Hualapai, San Juan Southern Paiute, and White Mountain Apache. The Colorado River corridor also is the location of traditional collection areas for plants and minerals, as well as contemporary prayer and offering places, traditional cultural properties and sacred sites.

Uranium mining activities on lands adjacent to the park could result in environmental and watershed contamination, according to a report by the National Parks Conservation Association. Potentially harmful materials from past mining activities are still present in parts of the park.

“Our ancestors could not have known that one day the Grand Canyon would attract more than 4 million visitors a year. That hunting, fishing, tourism, and outdoor recreation would generate an estimated $3.5 billion in economic activity in this area. Or that millions of Americans living in cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles would rely on this river and this canyon for clean, healthy drinking water,” Salazar said.

“Like our ancestors, we do not know how future Americans will enjoy, experience, and benefit from this place. And that’s one of the many reasons why wisdom, caution, and science should guide our protection of the Grand Canyon. In this moment, we face a choice that could profoundly affect the Grand Canyon in ways we do not yet understand.”

Some of the lands near the Grand Canyon contain uranium resources that have helped meet America’s energy needs, he said. Over the last 20 years, eight uranium mines have operated in the area and one study has shown that an additional eight to 11 mines might be developed. “The question for us, though, is not whether to stop cautious and moderate uranium development, but whether to allow further expansion of uranium mining in the area,” Salazar said.

Monday’s announcement follows efforts by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., scientists, tribal and local government leaders, businesses and hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens to secure protections for the region and its waters.

“This is a great day for the Grand Canyon, its wildlife and everyone in the Southwest who relies on the Colorado River for drinking water,” said Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter director.

The emergency withdrawal, like the temporary segregation imposed by Salazar in July 2009, would prohibit the location of new hard rock mining claims under the 1872 Mining Law. However ongoing or future mining exploration or extraction operations on valid preexisting claims could continue. The temporary segregation expires July 20.

Roger Clark, Air & Energy program director for Grand Canyon Trust, applauded Salazar’s announcement, Grijalva’s commitment to the long-term protection of Grand Canyon’s watersheds through legislation, and Havasupai elders for their lifelong opposition to uranium mining within their historic homeland.

“The Grand Canyon Trust is honored to join First Americans, congressman Grijalva, and Secretary Salazar in protecting our region’s water from contamination by uranium mining. The secretary said that water is the Grand Canyon’s and our arid region’s ‘lifeblood.’ We wholeheartedly agree,” Clark said.

At the time of the temporary segregation, 10,600 hard rock mining claims existed. Today, approximately 3,500 claims remain. The emergency withdrawal will help maintain the status quo until a final decision is made.

Information: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/mining/timeout.html

5/17/2011 Gallup Independent: Recreating the 'skyline'

5/17/2011 Gallup Independent: Recreating the ‘skyline’ By Kathy Helms Dine Bureau:: MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah – Cleanup of radioactive waste piles at the 1940s-era Skyline Mine, an abandoned uranium mine high atop Oljato Mesa near Gouldings in Monument Valley, is proof that a small group of committed citizens crying out for environmental justice can make a difference. Without community residents coming forward and making their voices heard through the award-winning documentary, “The Return of Navajo Boy,” by Chicago director Jeff Spitz and Bernie Klain, it is highly likely that the exposed radioactive waste piles would continue to pose a hazard for years to come.

“The more people speak up, the more people make their voices heard, the more responsible government becomes – and that starts here at the local level,” Jason Musante, federal on-scene coordinator for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9, said during a recent tour. The documentary has been good in bringing their message forward, he said.

Local resident Elsie Begay has been trying for years to get the mine cleaned up and a steel cable removed from her back yard. In 2001, EPA’s Emergency Response Section demolished one hogan constructed of radioactive stone. Begay and her family lived three years in the hogan. She later lost two sons to radiation-related illnesses. Her story is told in “Navajo Boy.”

Cleanup of the mine itself is a challenge. Oljato Mesa climbs to 5,794 feet above sea level. During the late 1990s, portions of the mine were closed by the Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Land program, which focused on removing immediate physical hazards, sealing the entrance to the mine, and consolidating and capping easily accessible radioactive waste.

But due to the steep terrain, a waste pile lying about 700 feet below the former mine and several hundred feet above the valley floor on the eastern edge of the mesa was not addressed. A “talus pile” of loose material near the base of Oljato Mesa is comprised of radioactive waste rock and ore that was either pushed over the upper slope or fell from the top of the mesa. A visible gray-green stain extends down the face of the cliff beneath the waste, denoting years of mining activity and runoff from monsoon rains.

Drainage from the talus pile has carried contaminated materials from the base of the mesa outward toward the road leading to Oljato Chapter. High levels of radiation have been detected.

When the mine was operating, a gondola was used to transport ore from the mine atop the mesa to the “transloading area” below, where it was placed in trucks and transported to a mill for processing. Ironically, that same concept will be used to clean up contamination on the valley floor. “We’re basically re-creating the ‘skyline’ to clean up Skyline Mine,” Musante said.

“The skyline would run up to the mine and back and forth and they would load the trucks out with the ore” at the transloading area near Elsie’s house and other nearby residences, he said. “There’s a few hunks of ore right there that have reasonable high activity counts, but as you move farther out, the activity decreases.”

To remove the waste from the face of the cliff, workers will cut into the hillside and use an excavator with a 75-foot reach to bring the material up, Musante said. “The high-line system, once it’s in, will operate kind of like a drag line to scrape up the face and collect the material.” Initially, EPA was just going to do the areas on the valley floor, but Musante said when he looked at it, he realized that all of the material on the cliff was going to come down eventually, so it was decided that it had to be removed.

“Basically, we have to ‘wipe off the table before we sweep the floor.’ That’s going to be very challenging. That’s also the area where dust control is going to be the hardest. Just the access alone is very, very difficult. The slopes are approximately 60 degrees, which is pretty nuts, and then, of course, the fall to the valley floor would be hundreds and hundreds of feet.

We’re going to have to work very, very carefully, take our time and go slow.” An estimated 5,000 cubic yards of material is on the upper slope. The majority of material to be removed is in the wash area. They plan to pre-wet it to control dust.

Workers first will tackle the top slope. “Since they’re going to knock some of that stuff down, we’re going to wait to move that over to the stockpile until after they’ve worked up above,” Musante said. Then contaminated soils from the drainage area will be removed and stockpiled at the transloading area where the “high-line yarder,” or skyline with a bucket capable of holding 4 yards of material, will be located.

“We’ll load the bucket, and then it will run it up to the top and drop it into a truck, and the truck will take it over to the repository. It will drop it into the repository, and then they’ll just be doing cycling. It’s all about production,” he said. “They basically will be moving 4 yards of contaminated material every six minutes.”

Approximately five home sites are located within 1,800 feet of the site. During the emergency removal action, about 30 residents living within a half mile will have to be relocated temporarily – no easy feat given the Navajo Nation’s shortage of housing, and especially during tourist season. In addition, a quarter-mile buffer zone will be created to ensure that residents living near the high-line yarder are not affected by any dust that might be created. Those residents will need to be housed through July.

Once consolidated, an estimated 40,000 cubic yards of waste will be placed in a newly created “interim” repository, or landfill, on top of Oljato Mesa. The high-line yarder is being used because the road to the actual mine and repository is a one-lane nightmare put in by Navajo AML and recently improved by EPA. The only way to navigate one steep section of the road several hundred feet above the valley floor is by driving in reverse. Transporting the waste by truck would have been far too risky for workers, local residents and tourists.

Scientists from EPA’s Superfund Technical Assistance and Response Team and laborers from the Emergency Rapid Removal Services are working together to construct the giant “Tupperware” repository where the contaminated material will be buried. Total cost of the cleanup is just under $6 million.

EPA has purchased 2 million gallons of water from the Navajo Nation at the corporate rate of over $4 per 1,000 gallons to use for the project. The water comes from unused U.S. Geologic Survey study wells. A temporary water supply pipeline of high-density polyethylene and pumps were installed to push water from a 20,000 gallon storage tank at the bottom of the mesa up to three storage tanks near the top. “We can’t haul water up this road, so the water moving system gets it up the elevation to where we can come grab it and then use it up top,” Musante said.

There was a lot of excavation of some very hard rock that had to occur to create the 3:1 compacted slope of the repository, he said. An all-terrain, 5,000 gallon water wagon with a cannon on top that can shoot water over 100 feet is used along with bulldozers to compact the soil hauled from a nearby “borrow area” by 30-ton haul trucks. “We had to hammer, hammer, hammer, with bulldozers ripping and grinding,” Musante said. “There has been some obvious logistic improvements that had to go on just to get this thing prepped.”

An 18-inch layer of fine soil from the borrow area will be placed in the repository, which has been dug out along the natural contours of the cliff. A 60-millimeter-thick, high-density polyethylene liner is then placed on top of the soil, followed by another 18 inches of the same bedding material so that when the contaminated materials are deposited, they won’t puncture the liner. A “bio-barrier” of 2-1/2 inch to 6 inch rock is then put down to prevent burrowing animals from creating an erosional hazard, followed by a soil cap to absorb any gamma radiation that might be emitted. Finally, a lined drainage channel will be installed to channel water away from the sides of the repository.

“You shouldn’t be able to tell any difference in activity measurements from being right on top of the repository or being just a small distance away on the mesa,” Musante said. Once disturbed areas are reseeded, “the cows can go ahead and graze.”

Musante is working with the Navajo Nation EPA Superfund Program to design an operation and maintenance program, which will involve annual inspections of the cap to ensure it’s not being eroded, and taking radiation measurements to make sure the activity levels are still protective of human health.

EPA’s Emergency Response Section for which Musante works solves imminent problems right away to prevent health threats in the near term. What happens with the Skyline waste in the long term – whether it is left in place in the “interim” repository or eventually dug up and transported outside reservation boundaries – is something the Navajo Nation will have to decide.