Tommy Rock

Tommy Rock, a PhD student at Northern Arizona University, helped bring to light more than a decade of uranium contamination in the drinking water of a small community in eastern Arizona.

The community of Sanders is not much more than a cluster of homes off Interstate 40 in far eastern Arizona. It’s a crinkled island of nontribal land surrounded by the Navajo Nation. And for more than a decade, dozens of residents had no idea that their water was contaminated with concentrations of uranium that far exceeded federal limits.

It wasn’t until last summer when Northern Arizona University Ph.D. student Tommy Rock tested the community’s main water supply and called a public meeting to give residents the news. Tests from 2003 through 2015 showed the average concentration of uranium in the water was nearly 50 parts per billion — way above the 30 ppb federal limit for drinking water.

Before that meeting neither the state nor the utility, Arizona Windsong Water Company, had given residents any notice about the uranium tainted water, and looking back, many locals believe they would still be drinking from the tap were it not for the NAU student’s work.

Rock, too, doubts that without his testing, the truth would have been brought to light.

“Looking at the way it was handled by Windsong and (the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality), it was like nothing was going to happen,” Rock said. “Without our sampling happening I think people would still be left in the dark to this day. The majority are Navajo and I think that's how it was handled, like, ‘Oh, a bunch of Navajos; don't worry about it.’”

DIGGING INTO URANIUM’S LEGACY

Rock is Navajo himself and grew up in Monument Valley, just north of the Arizona-Utah state line. His home is half a mile from an abandoned uranium mine. His grandfather worked at another uranium mine in the area and Rock has seen many of his family members, including his grandfather, die from cancers likely linked to the radioactive element.

After graduating from Arizona State University, Rock began to steer toward his passion. He completed a master's degree in sustainability from NAU in 2008, worked as a research scientist at the University of New Mexico, then as a water systems supervisor with the Navajo Nation EPA until he got frustrated and resigned. Later he returned to NAU, where he is pursuing a doctorate in earth science and environmental sustainability.

After growing up and seeing firsthand uranium mining’s toxic aftermath, Rock felt compelled to delve deeper into the issue during his second stint at NAU. His dissertation looks at the bioaccumulation of uranium in sheep on the Navajo Nation and he aims to work with tribal leaders to form recommendations for amounts of that meat tribal members in mining-affected areas can safely eat.

The Sanders testing came about as part of a side project Rock was working on under an EPA Environmental Justice Grant. The group was testing unregulated wells that were potentially being used for drinking water along the Puerco River, a tributary to the Little Colorado River. The river has a long history of contamination, with uranium mines near Church Rock, N.M., discharging to the river between 1960 and 1986 and a 1979 dam breach that spilled tailings into the waterway from the Church Rock Uranium Mill.

Residents from Sanders got word of Rock’s well testing project and asked for their water to be tested as well, he said. They had suspicions that something was off.

The test results came back in early June, showing that uranium concentrations were 43 parts per billion -- well above the EPA limit. Rock said he contacted ADEQ and officials told him they would make the information public, but it wasn’t until August that the agency issued a notice telling residents about the water contamination.

Records show the state agency has issued dozens of violation notices to Arizona Windsong since 1995. The company has repeatedly failed to do proper testing, maintain its groundwater well to state standards and notify the public about water quality violations. The company now serves 76 customers.

Under federal law, it is the company’s responsibility to notify its customers of water quality issues through public notices and consumer confidence reports. The state currently has no requirement to make those notifications, but in response to the Sanders incident, ADEQ is developing a process to issue public notices for drinking water violations if a public water system fails to do so itself.

Last summer, instead of waiting for action from ADEQ, Rock and his fellow researchers organized a community meeting to tell residents about their testing results. Rock estimated about 100 residents packed into the room.

There was a sense of betrayal, said Stuart Noggle, a longtime Sanders resident and local educator who was at the meeting.

“People were saying, ‘How could this have gone on for so long without anybody telling us?’” Noggle said. “It felt like we were just getting ignored in our corner of Arizona.

HEALTH CONCERNS

ADEQ has told Arizona Windsong customers the water is safe to drink for everyone except infants under the age of 1 and people with certain health concerns.

Rock and his research partner Chris Shuey of the Southwest Research and Information Center have been communicating a very different message. They are recommending residents stop drinking the water because they have already been exposed for so many years.

There is now hope on the horizon after the Arizona Corporation Commission earlier this month approved a plan for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to construct a new pipeline and provide drinking water to Sanders. But until that happens, residents are hauling water or buying bottled water. They created a webpage on the online fundraising site Go Fund Me to raise money for those expenses.

Rock said Arizona Windsong and ADEQ should share the blame for years of keeping the water contamination hidden from residents.

“For a very long time nothing was being done by regulators until NBC broke the story,” Rock said, referring to the NBC affiliate in Phoenix that recently aired an investigation into the contamination. “It’s sad it has to come to that.”

There are certainly parallels between the water contamination in Sanders and that in Flint, Michigan, he said. It’s government agencies failing to protect minority populations in the face of a major health threat.

But there’s also a big difference, Rock said.

“Flint had a lot of publicity and there's big old outcry but for Sanders there's nothing,” he said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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