“We were so excited about having water,” Jonnie Head said recently in the living room of her home, flanked by nine acres of lush, irrigated pasture.
Longtime residents say this scenic valley, tucked between Mount Taylor and the Zuni Mountains, was once lined with farms that produced an abundance of potatoes, carrots and other crops. Area farms rely on the abundant water of the San Andres aquifer, which also supplies some 700 households in Milan, five miles south of the Homestake site.
Until the early 1980s, shallow wells satisfied the household needs for the Heads and about 75 other homes southwest of the Homestake tailings pile, which was identified as a federal Superfund site in 1983.
“There’s still plenty of water,” Jonnie Head said. “You just don’t want to use it.”
The Heads were among 62 area landowners who filed a class-action lawsuit in 1983 alleging that Homestake had known for years that uranium and other toxins were leaching into groundwater. State officials warned residents in 1975 not to use well water for drinking or other purposes.
Homestake settled the lawsuit in 1983 under a consent decree with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in which Homestake agreed to extend Milan’s water system to homes near the tailings pile and pay for their water until 1995.
By then, Homestake assured residents, the groundwater would be cleaned up and the wells safe to use.
“Everybody worked for the uranium industry, so everybody assumed the company would take care of you,” said Mark Head, the Heads’ son, who bought a house in the neighborhood in 1987.
An official for site owner Barrick Gold Corp. said the company is using established techniques to remove uranium and other contaminants from the tailings pile under the supervision of federal agencies. The company now says it expects to have the site cleaned up by 2020.
Meanwhile, another concern has cropped up: An EPA report released in June showed that airborne radon from the site puts residents at some heightened risk of cancer. But the report also notes that radon levels should improve after the groundwater remediation efforts are complete and a permanent covering is placed over the tailings pile.
Homeowners say they don’t want to wait, adopting the slogan, “move the people or the pile.” Earlier this month, they told a top EPA official that decades of remediation efforts have failed and that the federal agency should buy out homeowners or relocate the tailings pile.
They showed Ron Curry, EPA’s Region 6 administrator, a “death map” charting at least 20 cases of cancer, including four deaths, and five cases of thyroid disease among area residents. Curry agreed to discuss the homeowners’ request with EPA officials and respond later this summer.
“This pile over here by us is not lined, so it will leak forever and forever,” said Jonnie Head, who nearly died of breast cancer in the late 1980s.
Homestake Mining Co. milled uranium ore here from 1958 to 1990. Homestake merged in 2001 with Barrick Gold Corporation of Toronto, Canada, as a wholly owned subsidiary.
Today, the site’s main 90-foot-tall tailings pile is located a quarter mile north of the Heads’ home and dominates the view from their back yard. The site contains two unlined tailings piles that cover a combined 255 acres and contain an estimated 22 million tons of processed uranium ore tailings, according to the EPA.
A variety of techniques has been used to remediate the site since the 1980s. Chief among them are “injection-extraction” techniques that inject fresh water into and around the pile, then extract the water for treatment, according to Barrick officials and EPA records.
Once extracted, some contaminated water is treated at a reverse-osmosis plant and reinjected into the ground to create a hydraulic barrier. Untreated water is put into a lined evaporation pond designed to concentrate harmful materials, said Alan Cox, manager of the Homestake reclamation project and a Barrick employee. Ultimately, the evaporation pond will be capped.
The EPA estimated in 2011 that some 3 billion gallons of contaminated water had been extracted at the site since 1977.
“We have removed quite a mass of uranium from the tailings pile,” Cox said. Once the contaminants are removed, he said, “it is taken out of the equation as far as providing a long-term source of contaminant migration to the groundwater.”
Barrick expects to finish groundwater remediation by 2020, Cox said, subject to approval by federal agencies.
Homeowners say they no longer believe flushing and injection-extraction techniques will protect their groundwater.
“We’ve been at this for 30 or 40 years trying to get the water cleaned up, and it’s not happening,” Jonnie Head said.
They would like to return to using their well water, and they are concerned that the contamination in the shallow aquifer will seep into the deeper aquifer, which they still use for irrigation.
Art Gibeau, a retired mining engineer who lives about a mile from the Homestake site, said he worries the contamination will migrate into water supplies for Milan, Grants and the Pueblos of Laguna and Acoma. Moving residents, he said in recent meetings with EPA officials, would provide only a short-term solution. “If the water moves on down – and it will – the folks down at Acoma and Laguna are going to find it knocking on their door,” he said.
Cox rejected the idea that the contaminants will migrate. He said the company’s injection-extraction strategy is a recognized groundwater cleanup technology that will ultimately eliminate the tailings pile as a source of groundwater contamination.
Barrick opposes moving the pile, which the company estimates would cost at least $1.8 billion, he said, and take “an inordinate amount of time.” It also would require uncovering the pile, which would expose workers and area residents to contaminants, creating safety and environmental hazards, he said.
Homeowners have for decades focused their attention on groundwater contamination, but the draft report issued by the EPA in June has raised new questions about possible hazards posed by airborne radon. The families cite numerous cases of cancer in the area.
The national cancer rate is about 3,000 cases per 10,000 people. The level EPA considers acceptable is, at most, an additional one case above the average 3,000.
The 177-page study found that people near the Homestake site face an excess cancer risk 18 times higher than levels considered acceptable by the EPA. That means that if 10,000 people lived near the Homestake site, 3018 would likely get cancer, said James Channell, an Albuquerque certified health physicist.
The EPA report also suggests that people throughout the region are exposed to elevated risk from airborne radon.
As a control, the EPA monitored radon levels at Bluewater Village, located six miles west of the site. The report found that residents there have an excess cancer risk 13 times the acceptable risk range.
EPA’s method of calculating cancer risks from radon exposure “is the best available consensus about what the real risk is,” Channell said. “There’s uncertainty about these numbers, but they’re pretty good.”
Regardless of the long-term outcome of efforts to remediate the Homestake site, area residents say they are stuck with homes they can’t sell and that may endanger their health.
“The sad part is, if this pile hadn’t messed everything up, this would be a Corrales-type place” with a scenic mix of farms, ranches and homes, said area homeowner Larry Carver.
Sandy and Jim Brewer thought they found a slice of paradise in 1991 when they bought a home about a mile southwest of the Homestake tailings pile. “We loved the views out here,” said Jim Brewer, 72.”Mount Taylor is out the back door and Zuni is out the front.”
The Brewers tested their well water and were told it was “sweet” and free of contaminants. But in 2009, the EPA sent them a letter saying their well water was “unfit for human consumption.”
The EPA also installed a radon reduction system intended to extract the radioactive gas from the soil beneath their home.
Their son, Craig Brewer, died of a rare form of leukemia in 1993 at age 24. As a boy, Craig had grown up playing on the tailings pile at the Homestake uranium mill where his grandfather worked. His parents believe Craig’s illness stemmed from exposure to radioactive uranium waste at the mill.
“We want to get out of here so bad,” Sandy Brewer said of their home.
“Can’t sell,” Jim Brewer added. “Nobody wants to buy out here.”