Native Sun News: Radiation high on South Dakota reservations

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA — Culminating more than six years of citizen water sampling efforts on March 26, the non-profit environmental watchdog group Defenders of the Black Hills called for more testing to detect radioactivity and for public warnings about possible contamination.

“As Defenders of the Black Hills advocates for the good health and safety of human beings, livestock, and the environment, this report is being presented to promote a level as close to zero radiation as possible in the water,” Defenders of the Black Hills Coordinator Charmaine White Face said in the sampling report dated March 2011. “With naturally occurring radioactivity already present, manmade disturbances must be prevented to not increase pollution from radioactive sources,” she stated.

The findings, entitled “Report on Water Tests for Radioactive Contamination”, reveal laboratory analysis of radioactive contaminants throughout western South Dakota, including Angostura Reservoir, Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, Lower Brule Indian Reservation, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the city of Yankton.

A U.S. Forest Service Draft Environmental Impact Statement showing 89 abandoned uranium mines in extreme northwest South Dakota alerted Defenders of the Black Hills to the potential for radioactive contamination of water supplies downstream, according to the report.

The Custer National Forest prepared the DEIS for oil drilling near the North Cave Hills and Slim Buttes, which are under its supervision in Harding County. Word soon spread downstream from the mining area to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Grand River and the Cheyenne River Reservation on the Moreau River. Located about 100 miles east of the mines, community members began asking for water tests in 2006.

Similarly, the Forest Service mapped more than 200 abandoned uranium mines 50 miles upstream from Pine Ridge Reservation along the Cheyenne River, which rises in Wyoming and flow into Angostura Reservoir before running onto the reservation in southwestern South Dakota.

Defenders asked the South Dakota government’s State-Tribal Relations Committee for sampling of all river entries into the state to test for uranium and other radioactive contamination. The only test completed as requested was at the place where the Cheyenne River enters the state from Wyoming, according to the Defenders’ report.

That test showed radioactive pollution was entering at that boundary. In a sample there, the S.D. Department of Environment and Natural Resources detected that “dissolved uranium exceeded the drinking water Maximum Contaminant Level,” it said in its 2006 Summary of Surface Water Quality Sampling in Western South Dakota for Uranium. White Face noted that federal and state authorities do not routinely perform checks on the radioactivity safety of water supplies.

“It was from considering all this information, and the requests from Rock Creek Community, from community members at Red Shirt Village and a large family near Sharp’s Corner on the Pine Ridge Reservation, that we undertook the task of gathering preliminary water samples at various locations throughout the region,” the Defenders report states.

Fukushima Nuclear Reactor Calamity Prompts Action
As each test was analyzed, Defenders submitted the information to the community sampled and reported it to the relevant tribal government. This month was the first time the group made available a compilation of the studies.

“Since Fukushima, we have submitted the report to EPA, the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the mayors and the tribal chairs, telling them they need to test their water,” said White Face. “I’m telling people they need to drink distilled water in the meantime.” Reverse osmosis filtering removes radioactive materials from water, but charcoal filtering does not.

The fallout from the nuclear reactor explosions triggered by the March 10-11 earthquakes and tsunami in Japan will eventually settle into water, despite official claims to the contrary, White Face predicted.

“The purpose of collecting water samples was to investigate whether there was radioactive contamination at the various sites near inhabited communities," White Face said. "Some of the communities drink water taken from the rivers. Some of the test samples were taken from well sources."

“Should the water contain radioactive pollutants, the people need to be aware of the fact so they will have an opportunity to do something to protect their health and the health of generations to come,” she said in the report. “Many radioactive pollutants require billions of years to decay into less harmful elements.”

Tests done in the wake of the massive malfunction at Fukushima should include additional sampling for elements that could come from the nuclear power plant, White Face said.

“Nobody has a baseline, so now if cities and tribes will do studies, they also need to ask for cesium and plutonium analysis; they’re different from what you get from a uranium mine,” she said. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Science and Biology with enough credits for minors in Chemistry and Microbiology.

Cause for Alarm or Precaution?
A sample collected on the North Shore of Angostura Reservoir near Hot Springs on June 26, 2009, produced traces of radioactive uranium and thorium. In the fall, Defenders submitted the results to the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, but has not received a satisfactory response to the concerns the group raised, according to the report.

Because many people use the water for swimming, boating, and fishing, the results indicate the need to use “caution and, in the author’s opinion, the need to inform the public. Further analysis of the water for the gamma emitters should be conducted,” White Face said in the report.

Gamma radiation from uranium and thorium is highly penetrating, like x-rays, and requires heavy shielding and or limited exposure to prevent tissue damage.

Black Hills State University Science Professor Andy Johnson, a Ph.D. in Physics Education who reviewed the study for Native Sun News, said Defenders findings on alpha radiation at Angostura and other places also merit scrutiny.

“Minimizing the ingestion of alpha sources is important because of the ability of alphas to cause internal damage when the sources are ingested, and because tissues in our digestive systems and in fetuses are among the most sensitive to radiation damage,” he said.

Johnson lauded Defenders for their sampling efforts but said that the results should not be construed as reason for alarm. He advised prudence in considering the impact of the findings about Angostura, as well as about the rest of the sites sampled.

“We need to have perspective on the situation. Our bodies are bathed in cosmic rays and radiation from radon all the time no matter where we are,” said Johnson, who has a Master of Science degree in Physics and is developing course materials to teach non-science majors and high school students about radioactivity.

“We’re talking about very low levels of radiation, and the potential hazard at these levels is mainly the increased likelihood of cancer later in life. But since cancer is becoming more widespread, we should be working to remove as many carcinogens from our environment as possible,” he said.

White Face said that among the reasons Defenders is concerned about removing them is the fact that radiation exposure and its effects are cumulative.

Johnson agreed. “We can’t do anything about the background radiation but we can and should work to mitigate human-induced radiation sources where possible,” he said.

Sampling Slow-Going Due to Short Funding
The community sampling from 2005 through 2010 was painstakingly slow due to funding restrictions, according to White Face. Individual donations supported each $500 sample, except in the case of one $2,000 grant from the Swiss Fund, which she received after presenting initial findings at a forum in Switzerland.

The most recent sample, Sept. 24, came from the drinking water faucet in the Yankton Municipal Building. Testing indicated an unidentified radioactive contaminant. The finding prompted White Face to ask, “Could the disturbance be on the western side of the state and have traveled down the rivers over 40 years to be present at this site?”

Her report recommended that “a test in the municipal building and a test at the water plant should be conducted again with enough samples to be sent to two separate laboratories with the results compared and interpreted by a nuclear physicist and a nuclear health physicist. The public should be notified of the results immediately with recommended actions taken if necessary,” it added.

The primary testing facility for the sampling at all locations was Energy Laboratories in Rapid City. Following its procedural recommendations, Defenders obtained water samples at the various sites, using plastic four-liter containers with nitric acid stabilizer added to prevent distortion of findings.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation
On Aug. 7, 2005, in one of the first samplings, water was taken from the Grand River near Little Eagle on the Standing Rock Reservation. It produced the following recommendation: “Until the Radon 222 levels at this site of the Grand River are greatly reduced, human beings should not be swimming in the water or be near the water for other recreational purposes as radon is a heavy gas and will be in the air in greater concentrations. Radon gas which is colorless, odorless, and tasteless will enter the lungs where it is one of the major causes of lung cancer. Furthermore, ranchers should be wary of allowing livestock to drink from the river as effects on livestock are not available at this time.”

On Jan. 9, 2008, a water sample was obtained on the Grand River near the Rock Creek Community on the Standing Rock Reservation by breaking through the ice and submerging the sample bottles. That day, another sample was taken from the Grand River where it enters the Missouri River on the Standing Rock Reservation.

“The sampling site was a few hundred yards from the intake valve for water for the Wakpala community. The people of the Wakpala Community currently use the water for drinking and other household uses,” the report said. “Although the results are small, ingesting these doses over long periods of time could possibly lead to increased rates of cancer, birth defects and other health concerns.”

It recommended, “Additional tests of the water in the Grand River at this location should be completed and include an analysis of uranium isotopes to determine if man-made disturbances upriver are contributing to the results. Prolonged exposure to alpha radiation by ingestion, showering, and exposure to the radon gas produced by the uranium could cause genetic damage and cancer. Distilling the water for drinking purposes is strongly recommended. A health survey covering the past 20 years should be completed to determine if there is unusual health data including cancers and birth defects or miscarriages.

On July 30, 2009, a sample from the spigot at the Wakpala District Pow Wow Grounds indicated a radioactive source was present. It resulted in recommendations for “additional tests to determine if man-made disturbances upriver are contributing to the results and tests further downstream in the Missouri River to determine how far this contamination has traveled.”

As the water at the pow wow grounds is also used for drinking, “ingesting these doses over long periods of time could possibly lead to increased rates of cancer, birth defects and other health concerns,” the report said. It recommended distilled water and a 20-year retrospective health study for unusual data including cancers, birth defects or miscarriages. On July 30, 2009, a sample was taken from the kitchen faucet in the Rock Creek Community Building. The sample was orange-brown in color and disturbing in that it was collected at an indoor faucet. The community members said they no longer use the water in their community building. But potassium-40 levels in the water indicate that “the people of the Rock Creek Community have been drinking water that will increase their fatal cancer rates by 858 times,” the report says.

It recommends, “Many more water samples in the households of the Rock Creek Community need to be analyzed to determine if they are still drinking water with high Potassium-40 levels of gamma radiation. Also, a health survey covering the past 20 years should be completed to determine if there is unusual health data including cancers and birth defects or miscarriages.”

Cheyenne River, Lower Brule and Pine Ridge Reservations
On Aug. 7, 2005, a sample from the running water of the Moreau River near Green Grass Community on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation presented evidence of uranium. The report recommended determination of drinking water sources for the four communities located along the Moreau River on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. It also called for conducting more tests and inclusive analyses of radioactivity in the Moreau River near the communities.

Water samples were obtained from a household in Lower Brule Community on the Lower Brule Reservation on March 26, 2009. The Lake Sharpe Reservoir in the Missouri River is the water source for the community. “Although uranium was not detected, there are radioactive sources in the water that are causing the alpha, beta, and high gamma radiation levels,” the report said.

It recommended that “additional tests of the water in the Lower Brule and surrounding communities should be completed in order to determine the source of the radioactivity and to warn the public of possible health hazards.”

At the Pourier Ranch north of Sharp’s Corner on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a number of deaths triggered concerns regarding the source of the cancers. Five samples were taken over a period of years from the water source, the Oglala Sioux Tribe Rural Water Supply System, which is a pipeline system and draws its water from deep wells on the reservation.

Distilling the water for drinking purposes was strongly recommended as were tests to determine the level of radon gas in the water.

“It is strongly recommended that Oglala Sioux Rural Water Supply System consider distilling all the water that comes from the wells serving the Pine Ridge Reservation and consulting with nuclear health professionals regarding the health consequences of high gamma radiation, remediation for radon in the water, and possible contamination of the pipelines serving the communities,” the report said.

An Oct. 30, 2006, sample taken southeast of the Pine Ridge Reservation community of Porcupine from the Oglala Sioux Tribe Rural Water Supply System showed uranium levels at 13 micrograms per liter.

On May 14, 2007, a water sample from the Cheyenne River just to the west of Red Shirt Village in northwest corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation village presented gross alpha emissions at or above the legally accepted EPA limit and uranium at 14 micrograms per liter.

Members of the village had requested an analysis of the river in order to use it for irrigating a community garden. The report recommended they do not. EPA had already declared the underground water to be radioactive. The people bring in drinking water from outside sources but still swim in the river, according to the report.

Radiation: How much is too much?
EPA established Maximum Contaminant Levels for radiation in 1976 and 2000, including a maximum permissible limit of 30 micrograms of uranium per liter of water.

However, the report states: “With more research and new technology since the years 1976 and 2000 when the EPA levels were determined, many scientists are now stating that no dose of radioactive contamination is safe.

It cites Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, dubbed the Father of Health Physics, who stated, “There is no safe level of exposure and there is no dose of radiation so low that the risk of a malignancy is zero”.

It also cites a 1940 report from several members of the U.S. Committee on X-Ray and Radium Protection, who “proposed that the [radiation exposure] standard be lowered by a factor of five in response to the accumulating evidence that ANY amount of radiation, no matter how small, can cause genetic damage, injuring future generations.”

Among other sources, the report cites an article entitle “No Dose is Safe” from Nuclear Information Resource Service in which one Dr. J.W. Gofman states: “… the human epidemiological evidence establishes—by any reasonable standard of proof—that there is no safe dose or dose-rate…the safe-dose hypothesis is not merely implausible—it is disproven.”

Although the report is extensive, White Face said, “Until one of the tribes steps up and does something, it’s just a piece of paper: You can throw it away. “I think if the tribal governments would take the lead, now I think the other governments and states would follow,” she added.

Recommendations White Face said Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation is within the mandate area of Defenders but has not been sampled due to lack of funding. The general recommendations of the citizen sampling are:

1. More samples need to be completed across the region testing for all elemental radionuclides, the ratio of uranium isotopes, and their decay products, radon in homes and water, and the amount of gross alpha, gross beta, and gross gamma radiation.

2. Sampling of the water, both surface and underground, needs to be conducted on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

3. Sampling of the water, both surface and underground, needs to be conducted in the entire state of South Dakota. The water in pipelines could be affected by radioactive runoff from the abandoned uranium mines emptying into the rivers and eventually reaching the Missouri River. Aquifers have already been proven to be contaminated by uranium exploratory wells. The major aquifer, the Madison, begins in the western part of the state and has a direct relationship on the largest aquifer, the Dakota, in the eastern part of the state, the report notes.

4. As radioactive contaminants are being discovered in the Missouri River, a more inclusive analysis of the water in the Missouri River needs to be completed, including downstream to the Mississippi River, and the cities and towns along both large rivers.

5. Informing the public of the possibility of radioactive contamination in the water.

The report concluded: “Radioactive pollution does not have a taste, smell, or odor yet its effects are deadly. Like a silent murderer, it can be in the water, air, or even in food and go undetected.

“Finding the culprit in radioactive pollution in the Upper Great Plains Region is very difficult as uranium 238, other radioactive elements, and their very lethal decay products occur naturally. Disturbances by man have contributed to the number of culprits expanding their destructive range.

“Although both of these problems make the efforts to find the sources of the pollution very difficult, it is not a situation that is unbeatable. The first step is determining that there is a problem. The second step, determining the sources of the radioactive pollution, is harder but the sources must be found and remedial actions pushed by everyone. The life of future generations is the outcome.”

(Talli Nauman is Health and Environmental Editor for Native Sun News. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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