Tribes and Dept of Energy forge closer ties at uranium site

Ricki Trosper (l), David Atkinson and Sam Campbell (r) collect water samples at an abandoned gravel pit near the area contaminated with uranium from a mill that closed in 1963. So far, water samples from this lake have been free of uranium contamination. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
By Ron Feemster
June 18, 2013

Contractors for the Department of Energy who test the ground and surface water for uranium contamination on the Wind River Indian Reservation have a new, local colleague.

Ricki Trosper, 41, is a new technician and public outreach worker for the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission (WREQC). In addition to helping take surface and groundwater samples near a long shut-down uranium mill two miles south of Riverton, her job is to educate the reservation community about the risks (and often the lack of risk) associated with the site.

William Dam, a DOE hydrologist and the site manager, examines maps of the plume with Ricki Trosper, the newly hired WREQC technician and outreach worker. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
William Dam, a DOE hydrologist and the site manager, examines maps of the plume with Ricki Trosper, the newly hired WREQC technician and outreach worker. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

“Basically, my job is communication with the community,” said Trosper, who is a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe. She joined the sampling team of Sam Campbell and David Atkinson at an abandoned gravel pit not far from the plume — the area where soil and water show significant traces of uranium. Campbell and Atkinson work for S.M. Stoller, a DOE contractor based in Grand Junction, Colo.

So far, the water in the old gravel pit has been clean. Nearby, uranium has leaked into the soil and an aquifer a few feet below the surface. Another aquifer, as deep as 90 feet below the surface, could be used as a drinking water source, although it is not. Sampling has never revealed any uranium contamination in the deep aquifer, according to the DOE.

“I’m going to learn to do the sampling,” Trosper said. “But my main job is to be a local presence for WREQC.”

WREQC is based in Fort Washakie, about 25 miles from the old mill site. Until now, information about the site has been available primarily there and at the Riverton branch of the Fremont County Library, about 5 miles away. WREQC wants to establish a local office near the site, perhaps in Arapahoe, where community members could access DOE information, voice concerns, and ask questions.

“There is some fear associated with the site because of the Chem Trade plant,” said Ryan Ortiz, the acting executive director of WREQC. Chem Trade manufactured sulfuric acid used in uranium extraction. Although the uranium mill was shut down more than 50 years ago, the acid plant is in operation today. “Many people in the community don’t know exactly what it does.”

Trosper started work just over a week ago. Her job was funded by a new, one-year agreement signed in April between the DOE and the Joint Business Council of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. The agreement replaces a five-year agreement that expired about two years ago.

“We decided to go ahead and get a one-year deal done so that we would have funding to manage the site,” Ortiz said. Negotiating a longer-term deal would have taken a longer time. “It doesn’t benefit the community to not have a deal in place.”

Ortiz, who is a former tribal administrator for the Northern Arapaho tribe, became acting director of WREQC after Dean Goggles resigned to replace the late Thurlow Jenkins on the Northern Arapaho Business Council earlier this year. If Goggles decides not to run for the seat again in two years, the WREQC job will be his again, Ortiz said.

The site near the Chem Trade sulfuric acid plant was used for processing uranium ore mined in the Gas Hills area between 1958 and 1963, a time when the U.S. was building up its nuclear arsenal in competition with the Soviet Union.

David Atkinson collects a sample. Data that needs no complex laboratory analysis is entered immediately on the computer. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
David Atkinson (l) and Sam Campbell collect samples from test wells located next to Rendezvous Road on the reservation. The shallow well reaches only into the aquifer just below the surface. The other draws from deepest aquifer, as much as 90 feet down. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

By crushing the ore and washing it with sulfuric acid, the plant removed most of the uranium. What remained was a “slurry” of crushed rock and water known as “tailings.” The plant pumped the slurry out into a 72-acre pile of tailings on land adjacent to the mill.

As the moisture in the slurry drained into the ground, uranium dissolved in the liquid seeped into the soil, according to fact sheets on the Department of Energy website. Some of it drained into the highest of three groundwater aquifers, a “surficial” aquifer as shallow as five feet below the surface.

In 1988 and 1989, 1.8 million cubic yards of tailings were removed and transported to a storage area 45 miles away, according to the DOE website.

“When they removed the tailings they went down four feet and added fill,” said William Dam, a DOE hydrologist and the site manager. “The fill is clean.”

When the area floods, as happened in 2010, the groundwater rises and absorbs more of the uranium trapped in the soil above the aquifer.

“The plume (the contaminated area) does not get larger,” said Dam. “But the concentration of uranium in the water increases.”

This increases the concentration of uranium in the groundwater. What hydrologists call “natural flushing” is expected to reduce the concentration of contaminants in the groundwater within 100 years. Contaminated groundwater migrates south from the site and enters the Little Wind River, which dilutes it to acceptable levels, according to Dam.

The uranium itself will not go away anytime soon. The half-life of uranium — the amount of time it takes for half of the radioactive substance to decay naturally — is about 4.5 billion years. But the concentration of uranium in the water and soil decreases measurably in decades, not billions of years, according to Dam.

Wells drawing from the deepest aquifer under the plume area would probably produce acceptable drinking water, Dam said. But the residents near the plume get drinking water from an alternative drinking water system funded by the Department of Energy 15 years ago. A one million-gallon tank is filled from wells five miles away and connects to water lines more than eight miles long.

The tribes will not only be able to take their own samples under the new agreement, the DOE will split samples with WREQC. The tribes have selected a second independent laboratory — one not used by the DOE contractors — to test water samples.

In the meantime, the Joint Business Council is preparing for the next round of negotiations.

“We were looking for a five-year agreement with more funding than they offered,” said Wes Martel, an Eastern Shoshone representative to the Joint Business Council. “We have one year now and we have to gear up for what comes. This is going to be a long-term effort.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at

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