Jared Blumenfeld, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 9, via Flickr
The beautiful colors in this photo belie the scene's deadliness: It is actually the Sulphur Bank Mine Superfund Site, which is polluting the environs of the Elem Band of Pomo Indians. It is one of a whopping 532 Superfund sites in Indian Country.

Kill the Land, Kill the People: There Are 532 Superfund Sites in Indian Country!

Terri Hansen

Of a total of 1,322 Superfund sites as of June 5, 2014, nearly 25 percent of them are in Indian country. Manufacturing, mining and extractive industries are responsible for our list of some of the most environmentally devastated places in Indian country, as specified under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the official name of the Superfund law enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980. 

Most of these sites are not cleaned up, though not all of the ones listed below are still active. Some sites are capped, sealing up toxics that persist in the environment. In cases like the Navajo, the Akwesasne Mohawk and the Quapaw Tribe, the human health impacts are known because some doctors and scientists took enough interest to do studies in their regions. Some of those impacts may persist through generations given the involvement, as in the case of the Mohawk, of endocrine disrupters. Read on.

1. Salt Chuck Mine, Organized Village of Kasaan, Alaska

The Salt Chuck Mine Superfund site in southeast Alaska operated as a copper-palladium-gold-silver mine from 1916 to 1941. Members of the Organized Village of Kasaan, a federally recognized tribe, traditionally harvested fish, clams, cockles, crab and shrimp from the waters in and around Salt Chuck, unaware for decades that areas of impact were saturated with tailings from the former mine. As if that weren’t enough, Pure Nickel Inc. holds rights to mining leases in the area and began active exploration to do even more mining in summer 2012, according to Ground Truth Trekking.

2. Sulfur Bank Mine, Elem Band of Pomo Indians, California

The Elem Band of Pomo Indians, whose colony was built on top of the waste of what would become California’s Sulfur Bank Mine Superfund site in 1970, have elevated levels of mercury in their bodies, and now fear for their health. According to an NBC News investigation, nearby Clear Lake is the most mercury-polluted lake in the world, despite the EPA’s spending about $40 million over two decades trying to keep mercury contamination out of the water. Although the EPA cleaned soil from beneath Pomo homes and roads, pollution still seeps beneath the earthen dam built by the former mine operator, Bradley Mining Co. For years, Bradley Mining has fought the government's efforts to recoup cleanup costs.

3. Leviathan Mine, Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California

The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California requested EPA involvement in the cleanup of an abandoned open pit sulfur mine on the eastern slope of California’s Sierra Nevada that became the Leviathan Mine Superfund site. The Washoe Tribe had become concerned that contaminated waters were affecting their lands downstream, causing impacts to culture and health, environmental damage, remediation, monitoring and testing, posting of health advisories, drinking water, effects on pregnancy, and cancer. Aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, iron, manganese, nickel and thallium have been detected in surface water and sediment downstream from the mine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that exposures could result in cancerous and non-cancerous health effects.

4. Eastern Michaud Flats, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Idaho

The abandoned FMC phosphorus facility occupies more than 1,000 acres of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho, and lies within Eastern Michaud Flats Superfund site. The primary contaminants of concern at the site are arsenic, elemental phosphorous and gamma radiation. FMC left a legacy of contamination in the air, groundwater, soil and the nearby Portneuf River, which threatened plants, wildlife and human health on the reservation and in surrounding communities. The Shoshone-Bannock have long asked for a cleanup of contaminated soils, but instead the EPA’s 2012 interim remedy is to cap and fill, including areas containing gamma radiation and radionuclides.

RELATED: The Wound That Won’t Heal: The World’s Hunger for More Phosphorus


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