The State of #Utah, @USGS, @NatlParkService, and @USBR to study effects of mining pollution on #LakePowell #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Photo credit:PaddlingLakePowell.com

From the Associated Press via The Sante Fe New Mexican:

The study will provide information about how mining affects the lake and the fish that live in it. Researchers will test for levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, mercury and lead…

[The Utah Division of Water Quality] will join the U.S. Geological Society, the National Park Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the project.

“This is the first study to collect and characterize sediment through the full thickness of the San Juan and Colorado river deltas,” said Scott Hynek, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Preliminary findings of the study are expected in 2020.

Fountain Creek: “Every time [#ColoradoSprings] makes an offer, it is business as usual” — Jay Winner

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

“Every time the Springs makes an offer, it is business as usual,” says Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, a plaintiff in the case. “They say, ‘You have seen a list of what we plan on doing, and that’s enough.'”

Officials with Pueblo County and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), also plaintiffs along with the Environmental Protection Agency, say they want to settle, too.

“I am totally convinced that every dollar we’ve spent on litigation is a dollar not going into projects,” Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart says.

But Winner and Hart say they want an enforceable agreement to assure the city follows through, not a given considering Colorado Springs’ track record of shirking its drainage responsibilities.

And while Suthers cites a 20-year, $460-million intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with Pueblo County and a new voter-approved stormwater fee as proof the city means business, a state official notes the city still defies the law.

“Many of the violations that Judge Matsch found are ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act,” Patrick Pfaltzgraf, director of CDPHE’s Water Quality Control Division, says in a statement. He also warns that Matsch “has broad authority” to slam the city with court orders to force the city’s compliance with the Clean Water Act.

At issue is a lawsuit in which regulators allege the city failed to force developers to install necessary drainage infrastructure, thereby allowing sediment and pollution to befoul Fountain Creek south to Pueblo and, via the Arkansas River, to points east and south.

And while Suthers has promised to do better, plaintiffs note the current IGA specifically says the agreement doesn’t bind future city officials to fund it.

“The biggest issue is no one trusts the Springs that they will follow through,” Winner says. “They dissolved the Stormwater Enterprise once. What will stop them from doing it again?”

Indeed, the city’s shoddy and under-funded stormwater controls date back decades and include the flip-flop of adopting stormwater fees in 2007 (without a public vote) only to abolish them two years later after voters approved Issue 300 that barred payments between the city and its enterprises.

Thereafter, the city’s spending on flood control dwindled to less than $2 million a year, and it continued to pollute streams and the Arkansas river.

Then came two scathing audits by regulators in 2013 and 2015, during the tenure of then-Mayor Steve Bach, which resulted in little action. So in 2016, Pueblo County threatened to rescind Colorado Springs Utilities’ construction permit for the $825-million Southern Delivery System water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir unless the city fixed its drainage problems.

That led to the April 2016 IGA, in which the Springs agreed to construct 71 stormwater projects and improve maintenance. Despite that, the EPA and CDPHE sued in November 2016.

A two-week trial in September addressed just three examples of developments within the city with inadequate stormwater controls, of the city’s hundreds of violations. Matsch found that the city defied its federal discharge permit by waiving water quality requirements in the northeast Indigo Ranch development; by failing to enforce its own rules against the developer of Star Ranch Filing 2, and by allowing installation of a misdesigned drainage basin at MorningStar at Bear Creek.

In a statement issued after Matsch’s ruling, Suthers lamented the lawsuit’s cost — already more than $3.3 million — and blamed the plaintiffs. “[I]f the state and EPA insist on continuing to litigate every issue, we have no choice but to continue to do so,” he wrote, noting the city has taken “extraordinary steps” toward creating “the best stormwater program in the state.”

But Winner says the city, not the plaintiffs, refuses to enter into a consent decree that would end the lawsuit.

Although plaintiffs haven’t floated dollar figures in penalties or additional drainage requirements, Winner and Hart say they want a deal that’s enforced by an outsider to ensure the city adheres to its conditions.

“Citizens would like that — to see they’re getting their dollar’s worth,” Winner says. “How can we be sure they’re going to spend that $460 million unless there’s some consent order? They [city officials] want to self-audit. What I want is a third-party audit, and I think Pueblo would see it the exact same way.”

Says Hart, “I’m willing to talk about anything to resolve the case.” But, given the city’s past flip-flop on stormwater, he, too, wants more than a handshake.

“What we worry about is making sure everything we enter into isn’t based purely on trust, but that it’s what we agreed to and it’s enforceable,” he says, adding, “Honestly, I don’t know if the city is ready, willing and able to settle.”

He bases that thought on two things: First, Hart, an attorney, ran into Suthers, who’s also a lawyer, at the State Fair where the mayor expressed disappointment there’d been no settlement. Hart told him that Pueblo County wants to discuss it. He says nothing happened. Second, “There was conversation a week or so before the judge’s order came out about whether a settlement discussion might be appropriate,” he says, “and I have not heard back.”

He adds, “I don’t think either community is benefited by constantly slugging it out in court.”

Winner agrees and wonders why the city seems bent on letting the lawsuit move ahead to a trial of dozens of violations and a determination of sanctions.

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch wrote that he found “a pattern of the city tolerating delays in correcting the problems reported” — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Fountain Creek flooding 1999 via the CWCB

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Conrad Swanson):

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch heard the case in early September in a trial that lasted for more than a week. He issued his findings Friday afternoon.

Matsch ruled that the city violated its federal stormwater permit at Indigo Ranch North, a development at Stetson Ridge; Star Ranch, a luxury homes community on the city’s southwest side; and MorningStar at Bear Creek, a senior living center.

Matsch, who has yet to rule on other allegations against the city, did not say whether the city will face penalties for the violations…

In his ruling, Matsch wrote that city officials waived best stormwater management practices at Indigo Ranch North without sufficient justification. City officials also did not adequately oversee construction at the Star Ranch development to ensure compliance with stormwater requirements.

The city was obligated under those stormwater rules to reduce the amount of pollutants discharged from sites, which can erode stream banks, degrade water quality and harm downstream communities.

Stormwater from all three sites discharged into either Sand Creek or Fountain Creek farther downstream.

Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas District cited increased E. coli levels, erosion and flooding as a result of Colorado Springs’ failure to properly corral stormwater.

City officials approved the design and installation of a detention basin at MorningStar that did not meet drainage requirements set in 2002, Matsch wrote. They also failed to ensure “adequate long-term operation and maintenance” of that basin…

Matsch wrote that he found “a pattern of the city tolerating delays in correcting the problems reported.”

@EPA asks courts to toss #NavajoNation’s lawsuit over #GoldKingMine spill — The Durango Herald #AnimasRiver

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, has asked that a federal court dismiss a lawsuit filed by members of the Navajo Nation seeking repayment of damages associated with the 2015 Gold King Mine spill…

While the EPA initially encouraged people and businesses to file claims for financial losses, the agency backtracked in January 2017, saying it was legally protected from any damages associated from the spill.

The states of New Mexico and Utah, as well as the Navajo Nation, filed lawsuits seeking compensation. New Mexico is seeking $130 million, Utah is seeking $1.9 billion, and the Navajo Nation is seeking $130 million.

Over the summer, the EPA, through the Department of Justice, filed similar requests to dismiss the claims, arguing the agency is protected from litigation under federal law.

The motion filed Thursday argues the same point in seeking to dismiss a lawsuit that represents about 300 individual members of the Navajo Nation who claim a cumulative of $75 million in damages…

The Department of Justice’s motion argues the EPA is protected under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which gives federal agencies a “discretionary function exemption.”

The EPA was acting according to the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act by evaluating the mine for remediation and preventing environmental pollution of the Animas River watershed when the inadvertent release occurred, the motion states.

The motion states that so far, the EPA has spent $29 million on past and continuing efforts to address mine pollution in the Animas River watershed, including building a temporary water treatment plant and designating the area as a Superfund site.

The stage was set for a blowout at the Gold King Mine years before the EPA became involved in the situation.

With the plugging of the American Tunnel, many researchers and experts of the mine district around Silverton believe the waters of the Sunnyside Mine pool backed up, causing the Gold King Mine to discharge mine wastewater…

The lawsuit on behalf of Navajo members says the spill, which carried arsenic and lead, prevented them from using water for their crops and care for their animals, as well as personal use…

Ferlic said a hearing Monday will brings together her clients, the states of Utah and New Mexico, as well as the Navajo Nation, to set a date to discuss the motions to dismiss.

#AnimasRiver: Which was worse for water quality: #GoldKingMine spill or #416Fire floods? — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Study compared metal loading in both events; results surprised researchers

A new report shows that runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar this summer dumped higher concentrations of potentially toxic metals into the Animas River than the Gold King Mine spill three years ago…

It has been a rough couple of years for the Animas River.

In August 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally caused the Gold King Mine, near Silverton, to blow out, sending 3 million gallons of toxic waste down the Animas River, turning it orange.

Then, this July, heavy rain fell over the 416 Fire burn scar in the Hermosa Creek drainage, just north of Durango, and sent a torrent of black mud, rocks and other debris down the Animas River.

After both events, Mountain Studies Institute, an environmental research and education nonprofit, extensively monitored and researched the impacts on aquatic life and water quality in the Animas River.

Though only a few months removed from the July floods, the preliminary data show the impacts of the Gold King Mine spill pale in comparison to the mudslides and debris flows from the 416 Fire burn scar.

Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group said that point was made clear when the 416 Fire runoff caused nearly all the fish in the Animas River to die.

By comparison, there has never been any evidence that the tainted Gold King Mine water caused any die-off of aquatic life.

Roberts’ study backs this with data.

The study took samples at the height of the 416 Fire debris flows on July 17 and July 24 on the Animas River, near Rotary Park, and compared it to samples taken during the mine spill as it passed through the same spot Aug. 6 to Aug. 9, 2015.

Rural America’s Own Private Flint: Polluted Water Too Dangerous to Drink — The New York Times #vote

Fertilizer applied to corn field. Photo credit: USDA

From The New York Times (Jack Healey):

Now, fears and frustration over water quality and contamination have become a potent election-year issue, burbling up in races from the fissured bedrock here in Wisconsin to chemical-tainted wells in New Hampshire to dwindling water reserves in Arizona. President Trump’s actions to loosen clean water rules have intensified a battle over regulations and environmental protections unfolding on the most intensely local level: in people’s own kitchen faucets.

In Wisconsin and other Midwestern states where Republicans run the government, environmental groups say that politicians have cut budgets for environmental enforcement and inspections and weakened pollution rules. In Iowa, for example, the Republican-led Legislature dismissed a package of bills that would have blocked any new large-scale hog operations until the state cleaned up its nitrogen-laden rivers and streams.

There are no precise water-quality surveys of the galaxy of private wells that serve 43 million people in the United States, but sampling by the United States Geological Survey has found contamination in about one of every five wells.

Few water-quality rules regulate those wells, meaning there is no water company to call, no backup system to turn to, and often no simple way to cure the contamination. In Flint, lead-tainted water prompted a public health emergency that led to a criminal investigation.

Homeowners say they are forced to choose between installing expensive filtration systems, spending thousands to dig deeper wells, ignoring the problem or moving.

“The water around a Utah uranium mine is growing more polluted” — Salt Lake Tribune #ActOnClimate

White Mesa Mill. Photo credit: Energy Fuels

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Emma Penrod):

The following was researched and written by Emma Penrod for The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

There once was a time when the children of White Mesa played outdoors without their parents fearing for their health.

But for as long as Yolanda Badback can remember, the remote town in southeastern Utah has worried about the smell emanating from the plant to the north and the trucks that signal the plant’s awakening after periods of dormancy.

“I see the trucks that go in and out every day now,” Badback said. “I don’t know what they’re hauling, but they go in and out.”

Badback is more familiar with the White Mesa uranium mill than many within her community. As a child, she tagged along with her uncle and longtime critic of the mill, Norman Begay, as he went to meetings in his quest to understand what the mill was doing and whether it was safe to live just over 5 miles downwind of such an operation. She later picked up where her uncle left off, searching for answers among confusing, and sometimes conflicting, information state, tribal and company officials have to offer.

“I’ve been going to these meetings for a long while,” she said. “I don’t trust them anymore.”

The mill’s current owners, Colorado-based Energy Fuels Resources, tout the plant as one of the last capable of milling ore into purified uranium. As such, they say, the mill is a critical national asset — an argument they’ve leveraged to garner political support for the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument and for tariffs on imported uranium.

But the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe — White Mesa is a part of the reservation — watches the polluted groundwater beneath the mill with growing concern, though state officials insist the pollution comes from other sources.

The contaminated water appears to be moving toward the town, said Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the tribe, and concentrations of potentially harmful substances such as heavy metals are on the rise. The acidity of the groundwater has increased. And state regulators, Clow said, don’t appear to share the tribe’s interest in addressing the pollution.

At this point, Clow said, “I think it would be the tribe’s preference that the facility shut down. But that’s a big ask there.” So instead, the tribe has focused on persuading the mill’s owners to phase out some of its older waste facilities, which they believe are more prone to leaking.

There’s one problem: Records from a yearslong court battle indicate that the newer waste-holding facilities, which are not in use currently, may have been built improperly.

As of now, the town’s drinking water remains clean, but Clow worries unchecked pollution will jeopardize the tribe’s relationship to its ancestral home.

“The mill has been there for 38 years now, and that’s a pretty short window of time compared to how long the tribe was there before,” he said, “and how long the tribe is going to be there after the mill, and all of that contamination.”

‘Giant bathtub’

In fall 2009, second-generation mine excavator Mark Kerr scored a gig at the White Mesa mill. The job involved the construction of a 40-acre tailings cell, a sort of retention pond Kerr described as a “giant bathtub in the ground” in which the mill would store its waste product. At nearly $5 million, the contract was a midsize project for Kerr’s company, KGL Associates. But the company was in financial trouble and struggling to make payroll.

“It was a nice job,” Kerr said. “We wanted the job.”

They wanted the job badly enough, transcripts from a later lawsuit suggest, that Kerr likely shaved his bid to razor-thin margins to undercut competitors’ prices.

At first, the job seemed to go as planned. The mill’s engineering contractor, Geosyntec Consultants, had laid out what seemed to be a pretty straightforward process: Kerr’s company was to remove the topsoil for later applications, blast a 40-foot-deep hole in the ground, and then clear away the majority of the debris, leaving at least 3 feet of dirt to line and smooth the bottom of the cell.

About six months in, Kerr received notice from Geosyntec that all the loose debris from the blasting needed to be removed “at no cost to the [mill’s] owner,” according to a May 5 memo.

“And I refused,” Kerr said, estimating that the free rock removal could have cost his company somewhere between $400,000 and $800,000. “I said we’re following the specs. … That’s when further blowups started happening.”

Kerr continued to argue with the mill’s owners and consultants about compensation. The engineers, as Kerr and staff he had on site recall, repeatedly insisted that all loose rock must be removed. If not, Kerr said they told him, the gaps between the rocks could collapse under the weight of the cell when it was filled with water and eventually waste.

Two weeks later, Kerr received a second memo from Geosyntec. He could leave the loose rock in place, but, “to provide a firm and unyielding surface,” the memo states, Kerr’s employees must compact the rock by wetting it down and driving over it repeatedly with heavy machinery.

Again, this memo said the work should be done “at no additional cost.”

Kerr proceeded as directed, but his previous arguments with the engineers weighed on him. A cave-in beneath the cell could puncture the liner that, like a kitchen trash bag, prevents waste from leaking. But unlike a plastic trash bin, the excavated “bathtub” Kerr built would allow liquid waste to escape, potentially polluting the groundwater beneath the mill site. How could he be sure this rock compaction would prevent the mill’s “trash” from poking a hole in the liner?

He began peppering Geosyntec staff with questions via email and through the company’s standard request for information forms. Where is the documentation proving this methodology is safe and effective? Does this meet the requirements of the mill’s operating permits? Do state regulators know about these changes?

Instead of answers, Kerr received a letter from Geosyntec’s attorneys objecting to his use of the request for information process and asking him to “revise or rescind” his questions. “It is not our experience to be cross-examined on the grounds of an engineering determination by means of an [sic] request for information,” the letter states.

Kerr’s company walked off the job a few months after the dispute began, leaving at least 4 acres of the cell covered in loose rock. By August 2010, he said, KGL Associates was broke.

State, federal regulators weigh in

The mill’s current owners, Energy Fuels Resources, consider Kerr’s claims “completely unfounded” but did not answer specific questions.

“KGL is a disgruntled former contractor who walked off the job, owes us a lot of money, and simply appears to be harassing us,” the company’s spokesman, Curtis Moore, said in an email. Kerr, Curtis said, is expressing “sour grapes” after losing a $4 million lawsuit.

That series of court actions began when subcontractors sued the mill for nonpayment, causing the mill to sue Kerr’s KGL.

According to the mill’s complaint, Kerr’s company not only walked away from the project without paying its subcontractors, but also failed to comply with requested changes to the cell, which resulted in construction defects.

A court arbitrator ultimately concluded that Kerr owed the mill nearly $4 million in damages, plus attorney fees. And the arbitrator found that the mill’s decision to withhold payment from Kerr was justified, given his company’s poor performance, which forced Energy Fuels to hire a second contractor to complete and correct KGL’s work, including, Curtis said, the 4 acres Kerr claims remain unfinished.

However, the court laid the blame for any environmental contamination related to the cell’s poor construction at the feet of both parties. “The contamination issue is one of shared fault,” the arbitrator concluded.

Kerr repeatedly appealed until he ran out of money. The judgment against him stands, though his concerns about the excavation remain.

As his case wound through the courts, Kerr began contacting the state Division of Radiation Control. Division engineers, he hoped, would have documentation to prove that the mill had made significant changes to his original job specs. But, in a late 2011 letter, the division told him only that the mill’s engineers had not notified the state of changes in their excavation plan — probably because the changes weren’t considered significant.

Next, Kerr approached the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which conducted a brief investigation and determined his fears were partially substantiated: State regulators needed more stringent requirements when there were changes in construction specifications. The NRC reassured Kerr, however, that Utah had promised to tighten its reporting requirements.

The NRC concluded that the change did not appear to pose a safety concern. According to the agency, state regulators assured federal overseers that their review of the cell’s quality had taken the new excavation methods into account. To Kerr, this assertion flew in the face of the state’s written letter to him that the changes were not reported to the Division of Radiation Control.

A review of the state’s records shows a quality assurance report produced by Geosyntec that describes several changes to the cell’s design, but the change in excavation specifications is not mentioned. And current division leadership continues to hold the position originally stated to Kerr. Any changes were probably deemed by the on-site engineers — including a state engineer — to be insignificant.

“We haven’t seen any issues with the tailings cell since,” said Phil Goble, who oversees the radioactive materials section within the now-combined Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.

Tribe isn’t convinced

That’s not necessarily the way environmental officials with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe see it. They point to state-collected data that show “a fair amount” of fluid escapes the new cells’ liners and enters a leakage containment system. The fluid has been pumped out and hasn’t entered the environment, but the leaks leave tribal authorities wary.

Even with superior liner technology, “it’s still releasing fluids,” Clow said. “So when we hear that the three legacy cells north of it, which have … inferior liners, that those can’t possibly be leaking, it doesn’t seem to make sense.”

The White Mesa mill sits atop several plumes of groundwater contaminated with heavy metals, including uranium and other concerning pollutants. The pollution predates the construction of the new tailings cells — including the cell Kerr excavated, which is not currently in use. But the contamination is spreading toward the White Mesa community, Clow said, and concentrations of some pollutants are increasing.

The state holds that the contaminants aren’t coming from the mill — or, at least, that there isn’t proof the tailings cells have leaked. The groundwater contains chloroform, which, if consumed, can cause damage to the brain, liver and kidneys, from a metals-testing operation that once operated on the mill site. Employees there used to put the chloroform down the drain, where it entered an unlined septic system that ultimately leaked into the groundwater, Goble said.

A separate plume of nitrates, a class of acidic salts that in certain circumstances may cause cancer, beneath the mill does appear to be a result of what Goble described as “poor housekeeping within the mill.” But it didn’t come from the tailings cells, he said.

And the overall increase of acidity in the water below White Mesa — that’s not coming from the waste cells, either, Goble said, because it occurs in groundwater both uphill and downhill from the cells.

But Clow remains concerned about the rising concentrations of heavy metals, especially those that don’t occur naturally in the White Mesa area.

One of the issues in trying to tie the pollution to the mill, Clow said, is that neither the state nor the tribe — which maintains its own test wells to monitor groundwater independently — has the historic data necessary to make the case that the metals do not occur naturally in the groundwater.

To their credit, Clow said, state scientists have conducted detailed studies and data reviews to try to determine what the area’s background levels may be. Baselines based on these analyses have been established. But when the amount of pollution exceeds the baselines, Clow said, the state has simply invalidated its own baselines and establishes new ones, rather than attempt to regulate the mill.

“The concentrations just go up, and then that’s what they call background,” Clow said, “and that’s where we tend to diverge from the state’s interpretation.”

Asked whether state regulators have revised background levels at White Mesa, Goble explained a legal process by which Energy Fuels could request to have the background information tied to the mill revised. He indicated Energy Fuels has initiated this process, but did not elaborate.

A 2013 letter to Energy Fuels shows the Division of Radiation Control agreed to revise several background levels for groundwater at the site, including the benchmark for uranium. According to the letter, the amount of uranium in the groundwater had increased gradually, but the division agreed with the company that the increase was the result of natural causes.

The tribe also diverges from Utah officials’ assessment of the health risk posed by the contamination. State officials have repeatedly argued that the contaminated water is not used by the tribe — that the community of White Mesa draws its drinking water from a deeper source that remains clean.

While it’s true that the town wells draw from the cleaner, deeper water, Clow said, the tribe worries the drinking water supply could, eventually, become contaminated. And tribal members do use springs fed by the shallow aquifer for traditional ceremonies.

“The statement that the tribe doesn’t use the water … is patently false,” he said. “The tribe was there for centuries before anyone else, and so they have traditionally used those springs and seeps, and collected plants for food and medicine on White Mesa, and harvested animals around White Mesa.”

Town’s troubles

Clow holds that the town of White Mesa, which predated the mill, will surely outlast the operation — and therefore that the mill should be more concerned about potential impacts for thousands of years to come. But the town may not be such a permanent fixture. Its 2010 population of 242 has decreased by half since that tally, according to U.S. Census data.

Despite being a lifelong resident, Badback said she sees no future there for her three sons.

“I encourage my kids to go forward, go out,” she said. “I don’t want them to be stuck in White Mesa.”

While environmental issues are part of her rationale, the town’s economic hardships and poor living conditions also factor in. According to 2016 U.S. Census figures, just 49 percent of the town’s adults are employed; Badback herself is without work. Her own living conditions are better than most, she said — she stays in a five-bedroom house with nine immediate and extended family members. At night, three people sleep in an outbuilding with electricity but no running water.

When the mill first arrived in White Mesa, company officials touted it as a job creator, Badback said. But the mill has only ever employed a handful of tribal members, she said, and the work is unsteady, with frequent layoffs.
Even if there were jobs, Badback said, she would never allow her sons to work at the mill. Her oldest recently moved to New Mexico to find work, and her middle child will soon join him.

Though she would have liked to leave the town as a youth, Badback said she stayed because her grandparents did not speak English and needed an interpreter. She became a caretaker for her mother, who had been the family breadwinner, and then she had children of her own.

These days she’s absorbed with trying to educate her neighbors about the mill. She holds community workshops and leads annual protests. But not everyone in town supports her, citing the civic facilities such as a community recreation center that the mill has donated and its unfulfilled promises about jobs.

Badback doesn’t buy it. Instead, she helps organize surveys to evaluate the health of White Mesa children.

“We only live one time; when we go, we’re not going to come back,” she said. “Our health is more important than a building. A building can stand for many years.”