On the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming, an ongoing community health study may finally have the data to back up community members’ claims about high cancer rates, and is looking for the cause, as well.
The old Susquehanna-Western mill, located a few miles southwest of Riverton, the ninth-most-populated city in Wyoming, began processing uranium and vanadium ore in 1958, using sulfuric acid to extract the elements from rock. The mill closed in 1963, but a sulfuric acid plant is still in production on the site. When the mill shut down, Susquehanna-Western left behind massive piles of contaminated materials, commonly known as tailings, for two decades. While finally removed in the late 1980s, contamination persists.
The reservation’s water supply runs through the former Susquehanna-Western uranium mill site. Many of members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes who reside on the 2.2 million-acre reservation opt to use piped-in water supplies instead of their wells to avoid further exposure to the toxins.
Director of The Rocky Mountain Tribal Epidemiology Center (RMTEC) Folo Akintan says despite the history, “there has never been a community health impact assessment” on the reservation.
The data analysis is still in-progress, but Akintan updated community members on her observations thus far in a public meeting held October 16.
“Their fears and concerns about cancer are quite true, and I just wanted to let them know that. I did not think that it’s a fallacy or it’s a miss, and I will show them that in the statistics,” she said in a phone interview before the meeting.
Akintan gathered historical data from Indian Health Services, state and national agencies, the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission, and volunteers distributed surveys to community members in and around the reservation to mine for current data. So far, she’s collected 367 surveys (two-thirds from American Indian, and a third from Caucasian participants), enough to let her analyze the data within a 5 percent margin of error. The goal of the study is to assess current and long-term environmental risks and health issues and eventually develop remediation techniques and policies to improve health in the participating communities.
After the presentation, some community members expressed frustration that the report was impersonal, although they admitted the technicalities are necessary for federal agencies to take action to remediate the issue. Community member Jolene Catron emphasized the need to make the report accessible to the community. Catron serves as the executive director of the Wind River Alliance, a cross-cultural, community-based organization dedicated to the health and protection of the Wind River watershed.
“Really the story of that pollution in the environment is … all about the community and environmental justice, so I think it’s important that the report present that—that it have community stories in it and not just data,” Catron said.
Akintan embraced the criticism and reiterated that the data collection is not in the final stages yet, and neither is the form of the presentation. She added that it’s too early to draw connections between what looks like high cancer rates and the uranium contamination. “To really say that there’s a risk indicator and to really say that there’s a correlation or an association, we would have to wait. We cannot emphatically say that right now, if we’re going to keep it scientific,” Akintan warned.
RMTEC will take another six months to complete data collection and analysis. The final results will be presented in another public meeting. From there, RMTEC will strategize with the tribes regarding remediation strategies and the way forward.
Catron says that no matter what the final report concludes, education needs to be part of the outcome. She says many young people in the community don’t know about the pollution, and the report needs to take steps to address that problem.
“Legacy education is really important,” she said. “If you want a community to really take ownership of pollution like this, and deal with it in a responsible and effective manner, for your children and grandchildren, you have to understand what it is and the pathways that it can take.”