Water quality in the Navajo Nation: An interview with NU Professor Franz Geiger

Geiger's "Navajo Nation Water Quality Project" offers a simplified, easy-to-use look at the best places to obtain water on the reservation.

Several years ago, while researching hexavalent chromium (the carcinogen made famous by Erin Brokovitch), the Northwestern University professor of chemistry received a call from a Navajo physicist asking him to take a look at water contamination on the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners region. He did, and discovered that not only was much of the area’s well water badly polluted, there was excellent data detailing the contaminant levels of individual sources.

Gathered by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers, the data is key to providing a map to residents of which wells were safe and which were not. Though it was originally in completely unusable form, Geiger is turning that data into a convenient, legible model that anyone can use. He sat down with the Global Health Portal to explain more about it.

What is the water situation like on the Navajo Reservation?

There is such a small density of people on this land that it doesn’t make sense to build water pipes for everyone. It doesn’t even make sense to give everyone electricity. There’s a big disconnect between technological infrastructure in this part of the US and the surrounding land, and they get their water from wells. It’s really just cowboy country. So here’s a hand-cranked well that’s been running for thirty or fifty or a hundred years and that’s how you get your water: you fill up these large barrel containers with water once a week, and one barrel is for doing dishes and the other is for making coffee and brushing your teeth. This is 2011.

Why is using this water a concern?

This land is extremely rich in uranium ore – it’s effectively yellow cake. When you read Judy Pasternak’s book [Yellow Dirt: An American story of a poisoned land and a people betrayed] she tells about the women essentially being smothered in yellow cake as they washed their husband’s jackets when they come home from the mining jobs.

Most of [the mines] are closed down now, but they are closed down in a way that is not proper. Many of the contractors did a crappy job: I’ve got photos where we stand in front of a mine that’s literally just covered up with cinder blocks. During the rainy season you’ve got torrential events and they flood the mines. The water inside the mines drops in pH and becomes very acidic, which dissolves minerals inside the mines. When you have uranium and other metal ions you also have essentially every other metal ion you can imagine, and many of those are toxic.

Municipal water comes out of a very deep well, and no matter where you go those are going to be fine. But the natural wells aren’t dug nearly as deep as a true deep-water aquifer. This is Western movie country, so there’s many hills and valleys and springs that feed artesian wells that aren’t deeper than a few tens of meters. That’s essentially the stuff that collects all these metal ions.

So the EPA data tells people which mines are safe and which are not. Why can’t people use the data without your help?

They could but the data is in scientific format. You have to know what it means, be able to read it, understand basic chemical concepts like concentrations – what is a microgram per liter? What is a mole per liter? So here’s my aluminum: 79.7. Here’s my arsenic: 9.7. What does that mean? Are these apples, are they oranges, are they kilograms? Does this number mean I’m going to die when I drink this day-to-day? Can I make baby food for my kids with this water? This is meaningless data for people who aren’t trained in the science, which doesn’t meant the intent was bad, it just means the data is not in a format that is readily understood by the stakeholders.

So your website is designed as an interactive model that compresses this data into useable form. What does it offer the community?

At this point the project is a number of years in the running, and what I like about it is it really is a general method of getting data to the general public. What does the public do with that data? Here on the reservation they can say, “Alright, I’m going to opt out of feeding my babies with food prepared using water from my well.” There is a limit to this, though, because when you give livestock contaminated water, you end up ingesting it anyways. That has already happened for two generations on the reservation – it’s really a problem. But I think there’s an immediate benefit in having the information available because you can tell people, “Don’t go to this one, go to that one.”

Without that you have little guidance on what the community can do while all the lawsuits and all the litigation are either being assembled or pushed up the flagpole. But here we have a tool that says “This is your current situation; you can make a choice.” At least at this point, the data is available.

The minerals in the wells are quantified by whether they are over or under the maximum allowable safety limit. Does that mean that anything under the limit is safe?

The maximum limit is very often not a limit that scientists or biologists recommend. The limit is the result of a compromise between what allows you to provide a safe, tolerable concentration of the contaminant while at the same time allowing the industry that produces that contaminant to continue employing people. Just because it’s at a certain level doesn’t mean that there is or is not a problem.

Look at contamination here in the city of Chicago from coal-fired power plants and the number of asthma occurrences in children on the South Side. The reason why there’s a limit to what can be done there is that at some point you will be faced with, “Do I keep the power plant open, or do I have another $50 million to build an alternative energy source?” If I don’t have that, I don’t have a choice. I have to live with the reality of an increased number of children with asthma. That’s the cost of keeping the lights on and a big reason to go green.

How are people on the reservation responding to your project?

The issue is complicated from the perspective of society and cultural heritage. Imagine someone came to you and said, “Okay, I’ve done measurements, even though you didn’t ask me to, and the soil on the house you just bought is full of lead.” Number one, you would want to move, but number two, there’s no way you could sell your house because now you have to disclose it. The value is going to tank, your mortgage is going to be underwater, so to some degree this is the worst thing that can happen to you – not just to your health, but also to your finances. People just don’t want to know, because as soon as they do they are responsible for taking action. So this is a real Catch-22 in terms of providing solutions. I think it’s a great case for government involvement because besides that, no one is going to do anything.

On the Navajo Reservation it’s not the property that’s the issue, it’s the fact that the Navajo culturally have an obligation to maintain the land pristine, as it was given to them by their forefathers. So now that they are learning that this land is in effect poisoned, they are in a position of conflict with regard to their charge. A lot of them don’t want to hear about it.

So how are you publicizing your data right now, and how is Groundswell Educational Films (video here) helping you?

While the site is publicly available, there is no link to it yet – though the URL is available upon request. Instead what Groundswell does is shop around the idea of a website. Once there’s a critical mass of people that really want to see it, then we will push the button. But right now this is the equivalent of taking a bucket of ice-cold water and throwing it into the face of a sleeping person. So while it’s very powerful and meaningful data, at the same time you have to be very careful how you put it to use.

The story of the generations of how families on the Navajo Reservation were affected by the United States’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and by working the uranium mines, is chronicled in Judy Pasternak’s Yellow Dirt.

Geiger is now working to provide a similar web model for the DePue Superfund Site. Their story is here.

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