With uranium poisoning wells, Navajos must drive miles to get drinking water
BLACK FALLS -- Teeth clack involuntarily and tools rattle on the floor board under the backseat of Milton Yazzie's Silverado as he and his frail mother bounce along the washboard-creased dirt road from their home.
For mile after dusty mile, rise after rutted descent, the truck rocks toward the dry river and then Flagstaff, the screech of Led Zeppelin on the radio inside and of a high-desert wind outside. Three plastic barrels bounce along in the truck bed.
It's water day on the reservation.
Twice a week, the Yazzies, 57-year-old Milton and 83-year-old Della, come down off their lonely hill on the Navajo Reservation's western side and point themselves toward the city for the clean water they need to keep living. For ages, they drank from a well less than a mile from their home. Then they learned that poison lurked there.
Uranium is gurgling up all over Navajo country.
At least three Yazzies have died of kidney ailments, a common result of chronic exposure to uranium. Federal environmental officials warned against drinking more. Milton learned to conserve, using an outhouse across their driveway and leaving the tank-supplied indoor plumbing to Della, because of her failing eyesight.
He begged the tribe, the feds, anyone who would listen, to build a pipeline through the sparsely populated Black Falls area, southeast of Cameron.
"I've been working so hard all these years to get good drinking water," he said, "and it never came."
Though they live out of anyone's sight, the Yazzies are far from alone in their hardship.
When World War II spawned the nation's nuclear program and then a nuclear-arms race, companies came digging. They unleashed a radioactive element that would leach into wells and springs. Not until decades later — and decades after many of the mining companies departed — would Painted Desert inhabitants know the real hazards left to them. Even today, true cleanup is in its infancy, with an uncertain growth chart.
The Navajo Nation estimates that 54,000 Navajos haul water from unregulated wells and stock ponds numbering in the low thousands, potentially putting them at risk for contamination from previously untested sources.
Thousands more, like the Yazzies, know the poison is in their communal wells. Water is the first thing on their minds whenever they leave home.
Parts of the reservation, especially in and around towns, are on treated, piped water systems, often coming from pristine lakes. Their water is good.
But in the remote sheepherding hills beyond the wired world, springs and windmills are the only sources. More than 10 percent of 240 unregulated sources that the Environmental Protection Agency tested were found to have pollution exceeding federal drinking-water standards for uranium or radioactive particles.
Across the hills southeast of the Yazzie home, Box Springs is one such source that has poisoned many unsuspecting people for decades.
Not far from Grand Falls on the Little Colorado, the well is tucked in a red sandstone arroyo with bleached soils and a big cottonwood tree that conspicuously advertises the rare occurrence of water.
The federal drinking-water limit is 30 micrograms — millionths of grams — of uranium per liter. Box Springs tested at 35 micrograms. It's less than some others, which tested as high as 700 micrograms. But over a lifetime, the exposure accumulates.
Most residents, but not all, have stopped using the water.
The government drilled a test well by the river to replace Box Springs, but that water was too salty.
Since 2008, the EPA, along with Indian Health Service and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, put $27 million into upgrading reservation water delivery. Fourteen projects, when complete, will pipe water to more than 800 homes. One of the projects also enhances water quality for about 1,000 homes that already had running water.
Down dirt roads like the Yazzies', or the dead end at Box Springs, building a web of pipes to sparse pockets of homes is cost-prohibitive. Instead, the EPA paid for a trucking program that sends four tanker trucks to various meeting places once a week. The trucks can serve up to 3,000 homes.
Yazzie has waited in line before, and has been turned away when the water ran out. He no longer relies on it.
Now, the most basic requirement for survival takes planning and gasoline.
Wool doesn't pay the bills. Yazzie earns a small income acting as his mother's home health aide. Those weekly checks plus his late father's pension enable the pair to keep topping off the tank and filling up barrels in town and allow mother to live in the land of her youth and keep son connected to his ancestors.
"As long as I can still haul water," he said, "I'll stay here till I die."
In winter, the drive to Flagstaff can take two hours or more in each direction. That's if muddy roads and a strong flow in the Little Colorado River keep him from crossing and force him to detour through the village of Leupp.
For such eventualities, he stocks up on bottled water whenever it is on sale at Flagstaff supermarkets. He can't afford to be completely out when storms blow across the desert as they did last winter.
"We didn't go nowhere for two weeks," said Yazzie, a self-described former wild child in cargo shorts, high-top sneakers, sweatshirt and bandanna.
In the dry season, it's about an hour to town.
On a June weekday morning, he loaded his three 55-gallon drums onto the pickup, draining what little was left in one into a Coleman cooler before rolling toward Flagstaff.
"I can't waste no water," he said.
On this day, the river was dry, the 50-mile path to town clear. He helped Della into the passenger seat at 10:25 a.m., and rattled out the road to Black Falls crossing, dust on black rock. They rolled onto blacktop and on through Wupatki National Monument, past haunting ancient Puebloan rock ruins that overlook the rolling plains.
At noon, Yazzie parked outside Flagstaff City Hall, where his mother handed him a $20 bill to reload their water account with a clerk inside. Each barrel subtracts about 40 cents from the account.
From there, they drove several blocks to a city pump, where an overhead hose hung from a crane arm. A city inspection report listed scheduled testing results — including no violations for uranium.
Yazzie swung the steel arm over his truck and dropped the hose into one barrel. Within about five minutes, all three barrels were full, and Yazzie tied off their caps with plastic bags.
He went searching for cheap gas at Fry's, where he noticed the price had gone up 2 cents a gallon, to $3.49, since his visit a few days earlier. Inside the grocery store, he gathered some chicken quarters, eggs, fruit and ice to keep them on the journey home, then two 24-packs of bottled water at $2.47 apiece.
After lunch at a Chinese buffet, Yazzie perused Sam's Club for some bread and melons, then headed for home, arriving just after 4, about 120 new miles on the truck. Before unloading at home, he switched to an older pickup and drove a half-mile to fill a couple of drums at his former watering hole — a well that the EPA told him had elevated uranium at "borderline" dangerous levels. He still uses that water for his livestock and vegetable garden.
Studies have shown that some of the radioactivity in exposed foods, particularly livestock organs, can pass to humans. But the dose from this well is less than others on the reservation.
Yazzie's water-hauling regimen is beyond what some others in need are able or willing to endure every week. The EPA noted in a 2013 report on the water upgrades that some residents had reopened capped wells and started using contaminated water.
One of them is Rolanda Tohannie. She lives just over a rise from Box Springs, one of the sources that the EPA closed.
"Most of my family is gone," she said. "They all died of kidney failure. They blame that on the water."
She has had tumors removed from her stomach and the back of her head.
"I believe they have taken out all of the uranium in me," she said.
Still, she said, the water tastes better than bottled, and it's most convenient to use what's readily available. So she routinely uses Box Springs water for washing and gardening, and sometimes for coffee or drinking.
"It's refreshing," she said. "It makes the coffee taste better. It's an artesian well."
Tohannie, 51, tried having family members haul water from Leupp, but it was too salty.
The water-hauling trucks are not convenient, and people are frequently confused about when they arrive, Tohannie said. She is on disability for issues unrelated to uranium, and cannot make frequent trips to Flagstaff.
"I don't have a choice" about using the water, she said.
Linda Begay, 48, believes Box Springs uranium contamination caused her mother's cancer and her own bladder infections and hematuria — blood in the urine and a possible sign of kidney problems. She now meets the tanker truck weekly to supply her family's home and stock troughs, as well as her parents' nearby home and hogan.
Her grandmother died in the 1980s of stomach cancer. That was the start of painful and mysterious ailments afflicting the family.
Her dad has skin lesions that are flaky and sometimes gooey. Her mom has suffered colon cancer, and had a 2-inch piece of intestine removed in a Phoenix hospital.
Her husband, an asphalt worker with long daily commutes, is healthy. But he grew up as a foster child in Utah, California and Colorado, away from the poison.
"I have the bladder infections all my life," Begay said.
Of 19 households in the surrounding hills, she said, half have been visited by cancer.
"I think I'm going to get cancer," she said.
The tribe's 4,000-gallon water truck arrives early on Mondays at a scheduled gathering spot, and stays until 11a.m. or until it is empty, whichever comes first. Begay can fetch 250 gallons at a time in her pickup, and some weeks is able to return three times before the water is gone.
She returns home to dump some of the water in a holding tank, and some in the troughs where every evening dozens of dog-chaperoned sheep return from the parched range to the corrals behind the house.
It's enough, with strict conservation measures such as shutting off the water while scrubbing in the shower.
But if the truck breaks down and doesn't make it, she must drive a couple of hours to Flagstaff for water for her sheep. She feels safer drinking Flagstaff water, and often retrieves bottles of it when she is in town.
Begay's two sons, Andre and Quentin, are in the military. Her daughter, Ashley, is at college in Durango, Colo.
When they return, as she expects they will, they won't live on the homestead.
But for her, home is home, regardless.
"I don't want to leave this place," she said. "It's not going to be as good (elsewhere). It feels like home, even with all this uranium.
"I just feel like if I keep my shoes on and drink water from Flagstaff, I'll be OK."
As she discussed her predicament late last winter, a neighbor from down the road called to ask whether the Little Colorado was passable by truck that day. He was heading to Flagstaff for water.
So why don't they follow the clean water and move to the city?
"We (wouldn't) know what to do," Yazzie said. "We can't raise sheep out in the middle of the street."
Without him and others who feel that way, he sees little hope that anyone will restore or protect the land.
Around a bend from his house at Black Falls, near where he pumps suspect water for his sheep, he has painted a wooden sign warning thieves about taking massive hunks of petrified wood from the hillside. He has seen them do it before, using cranes to lift the valuable stone onto trucks.
He wants the land and its minerals intact, looking the way it did when his ancestors hid from Kit Carson's army, the way it did when they returned after forced relocation to New Mexico.
"We are trying to live up to what they fought so hard for," Yazzie said.