Elisha Yellow Thunder has a very personal reason for her research into mining contamination impacting some of the poorest counties in the country, better known as the Pine Ridge Indian reservation.

Her daughter Laila Pettigrew seems like any other nine-year-old. She smiles a lot, her favorite color is green, she loves to draw and sketch, her favorite food is potatoes, and she wants to be a scientist like her mom when she grows up.

On a recent day at a park in South Omaha, she seems full of life and energy, performing a cartwheel, riding her bike and playing with her brother and sister.  Just by looking at her, you wouldn’t suspect that anything’s wrong. That is, until you notice the tubing taped to her collarbone when the neck of her shirt moves, or see the bag near her stomach when she cartwheels.

Despite appearances, Laila was born with a number of medical anomalies: a cystic kidney that looked like a cluster of grapes, partially developed reproductive organs a deformity in her lower spine. She required two surgeries immediately after birth. Her cystic kidney was removed, leaving Laila with only one functioning kidney.

On Feb. 25, 2011 Laila’s remaining kidney catastrophically failed. Laila fell to the ground convulsing. She recalls her father Jeremy Pettigrew attempting to keep her awake. She taps her face with her hand to demonstrate, “He was doing this every time I’d try to sleep.” 

Because of two blood transfusions that Laila received and the antibodies that she built up, none of her relatives are a match for a kidney. The normal wait list for a transplant kidney is one to two years, but it could be up to 15 years before Laila finds a suitable donor.

The tubing at Laila’s collar is a catheter used for the dialysis that she requires three days, for a total of nine hours, a week. The dialysis assists her remaining kidney, which is in end stage renal failure. The bag at her stomach is a colostamie bag that Laila has had to have since birth. She can’t eat her favorite food potatoes, because her kidney can’t handle it.

Elisha Yellow Thunder also isn’t as she appears. Wearing a red bandana with a skeleton on it, or often in a Misfits t-shirt, she says that people often mistake her for an art student, not a geology undergraduate. Laila’s family is Oglala Sioux and until a little over a year ago lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation on the northwest border of Nebraska. They had to move to Omaha, because there is no pediatric dialysis there and to wait for a donor kidney for Laila.

Source of the Problem

When Elisha was pregnant with Laila she was living in Loneman, South Dakota near Oglala, an area that Elisha says she came to find was a hotspot for uranium contamination. Elisha began to suspect that the Laila’s birth defects were due to drinking water contaminated with uranium during the first six months of her pregnancy. Her other two children were born on a portion of the reservation with Sandhills water, recognized as the cleanest water on the reservation. Both of Elisha’s other children were born healthy.

Something calling attention to the kidney disease, diabetes and cancer on the reservation is the fact that some say 20 to 30 years ago these health issues were not widespread on Pine Ridge. People have noticed a spike in renal failure within the last 10 years.

As Elisha looked for the sources of her daughter’s health problems and began researching uranium, she became interested in studying geology at Oglala Lakota College. That’s where she met Dr. Hannan LaGarry.

LaGarry a non-Native, found his way to OLC after working for the Nebraska State Geological Survey and later Chadron State College. During a summit, “Our Water, Our Future: A Town Hall Meeting,” concerning declining water quality and water shortages in northwestern, Neb., Debra Whiteplume, a Native American activist who is also Elisha’s aunt, asked about possible uranium contamination. Whiteplume’s question for LaGarry was if the In-Situ Leach uranium mine near Crawford, Neb. could be a possible source of contamination to groundwater on Pine Ridge, which is 30 miles downriver.

In-situ leach (ISL) mining is a mining process where uranium-bearing ore is injected with a leaching solution that is then pumped to the surface from other wells. It’s touted by some as being a safer method of uranium mining and is also cheaper than open pit uranium mines of the past.

A number of open pit uranium mines have already left their legacy on South Dakota. LaGarry says that there are 88 open pit uranium mines in the area that are no longer in use. While studying outcrops near Ludlow, South Dakota he registered that he received radiation levels comparable to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped for 15-minutes. The area under study was only 2/10 of a mile from the playground of an elementary school.

Appearances can be deceiving. LaGarry says that when looking at a glass of water you wouldn’t know that it’s contaminated by uranium. He says, “It’s odorless, colorless and tasteless.”  He says that the water on the reservation has several contaminants: arsenic, uranium, and fluorine.

In answer to Whiteplume’s question, LaGarry says, “There are plausible scenarios where water with contamination could get from the mine into the water in northwest Neb., including downstream which is the Pine Ridge Reservation.”

According to LaGarry’s report published in 2008, he had several concerns with the Crow Butte Resources ISL mining operations near Crawford, Neb. mainly due to unmapped faults:

The uranium mine is situated along the same aquifers and fault zones as Chadron Creek. If faults and joints are draining the flow of Chadron Creek, they could also be allowing mine waste waters to migrate through confining layers. A review of the scientific literature showed that faults and joints are well known in some areas, but especially along the Pine Ridge near Chadron and Crawford, and along the southern border of the Pine Ridge Reservation near the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska and Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

The report goes on to state: “This issue isn’t even about uranium. It’s about protecting the region’s water supply, and the future inhabitability of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern, South Dakota.

Elisha’s Research

In the summer and fall of 2011, Elisha sampled rocks from 25 above ground outcroppings on Pine Ridge. She received a grant for the study from the University of Washington.

“I guess you could say that I’m trying to blame Mother Nature first,” she says, “before any of the blame goes to the mines. So let’s eliminate Mother Nature as the source of the contamination and then we can move on to man-made uranium isotopes found in the water.” 

Elisha resumed her undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha until she can return to the reservation and OLC. During UNO’s Spring Break, when other college students were traveling to destinations like Cancun and worrying about bacteria in Mexico’s water, Elisha made a trip back to the reservation with other water concerns. She picked up her samples and delivered them to a lab at the University of South Dakota for testing.

There’s currently no conclusive evidence to suggest that the CBR uranium mine is responsible for contaminating Pine Ridge’s groundwater. But Elisha’s research may one day eliminate or verify it as a source. 

Some question if a spill or even a fault beneath an ISL mine did cause water suitable for human consumption to become contaminated if there would be any remedy.

Documentary filmmaker Suree Towfighnia—who is shooting a film about Laila, the issues with ISL mining, and water concerns on Pine Ridge—says that mining companies have never demonstrated an ability to return water contaminated back to its original level of purity.  “They say they can, but they’ve never done it.”

Cameco- Canadian Mining and Energy Corporation

Cameco, a Canadian corporation based in Saskatchewan, Canada is the world’s leading producer of uranium, with a checkered history of environmental stewardship. It operates the CBR uranium mine near Crawford, Neb. Its Highland-Smith Ranch operations in Wyoming was touted as being a leader in environmental responsibility, but according to a report by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (See full report here).

In the language of in situ leach mining, an “excursion” is an underground leak of mining chemicals or radioactive material, meaning it has moved outside the immediate mining area. Because ISL is done in water, this means that water has become contaminated. The LQD’s Report of Investigation reports, “Over the years there have been an inordinate number of spills, leaks and other releases at this operation. Some 80 spills have been reported, in addition to numerous pond leaks, well casing failures and excursions. Unfortunately, it appears that such occurrences have become routine. The LQD currently has two large three-ring binders full of spill reports from the Smith Ranch – Highland operations.”

Regulators only discovered many of these violations after investigating an anonymous tip. Among other things, the report also went on to say that spills at the mine resulted in a total 202,247 gallons of mining fluids escaping, with only 3,500 gallons recovered. This raises the question: Where did the remaining 198,747 gallons of mining fluids end up, and how effectively are regulators able to monitor the mines?

Cameco subsidiary Crow Butte Resources (CBR) ISL mine near Crawford, Neb. has been cited for a number of violations, as well.  From Aug. 12, 1997 to Oct. 7, 2011 a total of 52 License Violations were compiled.  A number of these are for excursions from monitor wells and pond leaks.

In 1998, according to reports, there was a spill of 10,260 gallons of injection fluid. In 2008, The District Court of Lancaster, County imposed a $50,000 penalty on CBR for violations at the Crawford ISL uranium mine. According to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality the fine stemmed from violations “beginning on our about July 1, 2003, and continuing daily thereafter until March 31, 2006” that violated its Underground Injection Control (UIC) Permit No. NE0122611. 

The violations CBR was fined for:

• Releasing well development water upon the surface of the ground during CBR’s well development and drilling process

• Using Chadron Formation well development water as drilling water

• Constructing injection wells and mineral production wells in a manner that had the potential to allow movement of fluid containing contaminants into the underground source of drinking water

• Failing to provide written notification until May 12, 2006, upon becoming aware of the noncompliance on or about March 31, 2006.

In addition, according to a written document to the Department of Environmental Quality, CBR acknowledged that in 1996 a leak in an injection well caused 300,000 gallons of mining fluid to escape with only 1/3 of the lost fluid being recovered over a three-year period.

Cameco’s cumulative violations in the U.S. and accusations at its ISL mining operations elsewhere in the world leave some worrying if the risk of contaminating water useable for human consumption outweighs the benefits.

Towfighnia says that the perception that uranium mined from Crawford is reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil interests is false. She says, “None of it feeds energy locally. It’s taken to facilities in Canada and Illinois, enriched there and sent to energy plants around the world.” Towfighnia says that her production company Prairie Dust Films is researching exactly where it goes, but that the trail is hard to follow.

OLC has been received millions of dollars in grant money from the National Science Foundation, some of which is used to study uranium. A number of other universities have given grants or have partnered with the college, as well.

The fight to stop Crow Butte’s expansion to open two new ISL uranium operations in Nebraska is currently under contention. An article from an Oglala Sioux group, Obe Aku (Bring Back The Way), sums up the many questions that linger: “Have the nuclear waste tailings from the [abandoned] uranium mines around the Edgemont area that washed into the Cheyenne River also gotten into the groundwater, thus traveling for many years underground to get here, under the Pine Ridge, into the Aquifer we drink from? Did the above ground tailings blow in the wind to our lands here on Pine Ridge? There has never been a definitive study across the reservation to determine possible sources of contamination.”

When, complete Elisha’s study hopes to remedy that, but for now Elisha waits for Laila to find a donor. Years from now the many questions about Pine Ridge’s water quality should have answers. Right now, Laila fights for her life.

Anyone interested in becoming a donor should contact the Transplant Center at UNMC at 402-559-5000 or visit Laila’s Fight on Facebook. For more information on water quality on Pine Ridge visit PrairieDustFilms.com or BringBackTheWay.com

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