On a sweltering day last July, a team of scientists stood before a crowded room of people from the tiny town of Sanders, Arizona, and showed them a photo of a dilapidated wooden shack covered by hole-filled tarps. This, the scientists explained, was the town’s water source.
Tonya Baloo, a longtime resident and mother of two, did a double take. “It looked like a Third World country,” she says. “I was like, ‘Is this Africa?’”
The researchers’ next image—a chart with a flat red line cutting through yellow bars—was even more worrisome. Tommy Rock, a Ph.D. candidate studying water contamination at Northern Arizona University, explained that the red line was the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for uranium allowed in public water systems: 30 micrograms per liter. The yellow bars represented uranium levels in Sanders’ water supply dating back to 2003. They hovered around 50 micrograms per liter.
For more than a decade, the chart showed, people in Sanders had been drinking contaminated water.
Residents listened, dumbfounded. Sanders sits on the edge of the Navajo Nation; uranium mines, relics of the Cold War, have long dotted tribal lands across the West. Long-term exposure to the heavy metal can cause kidney disease and cancer. But locals had never been notified of the contamination. Nor were they aware of the nearly 200 drinking-water violations that the local utility had amassed over the previous decade, ranging from uranium and bacterial contamination to failure to test the water.
“The initial betrayal,” Baloo says. “It was shocking.”
The meeting happened two months before researchers in Flint, Michigan, revealed that their city’s water was laced with lead. In both cases, curious scientists exposed years of drinking-water violations that affected predominantly poor, minority communities. (Most Sanders residents are Navajo and live on less than $20,000 per year.) But unlike urban Flint, Sanders is home to just 630 people and consists of a cluster of single-family homes, a gas station, a dollar store, two churches, and a trading post—all surrounded by miles of red rock and sage brush.
The town is one of thousands of rural communities across the country where water quality has quietly evaded federal health standards for years. Many small utilities simply cannot afford advanced water treatment technology, says Jeff Griffiths, a public health professor at Tufts University and a former adviser to the EPA on drinking water. (An inspection of the Sanders well in 2012, for example, found that “the owner pours an unapproved bleach product down the casing vent daily as the method of disinfection.”) According to EPA data, roughly 6 million Americans use one of 2,300 public water systems that qualify as “serious violators”—defined as having multiple, continuous, or serious health or reporting problems. Ninety-nine percent of those utilities serve fewer than 50,000 people. Together, they serve a population 25 times the size of Flint.
A week after Rock’s presentation, Sanders residents received a notice in the mail from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) informing them of the high uranium levels in the local water supply—a first since the contamination was reported to the state in 2003. Long-term exposure can increase the risk of kidney disease and cancer, it said, but the situation wasn’t an emergency. “You do NOT need to seek an alternate (for example, bottled or hauled) water supply,” it read. “The water remains safe to use until treatment is put into place.”
Many residents, wary of the state’s assurances, avoided the water. Baloo brought her kids an hour away to her mom’s house for baths. Genevieve Lee, a 73-year-old retired teacher, resorted to eating canned food and taking sponge baths out of a bucket. She made 40-minute treks to Gallup, New Mexico, for water and often found herself wondering about the uranium’s impact. Did it contribute to her breast cancer in 2008? To her neighbor’s kidney disease?
Lee, Baloo, and others formed a water task force, petitioning for the town to connect to a nearby, well-maintained utility in the Navajo Nation. “All we think about is water,” Baloo told me this spring.
The hubbub led Sanders school system superintendent Dan Hute to test the schools’ water supply, which comes from a private well unaffiliated with Sanders’ water system; the water in Sanders elementary and middle schools was also contaminated. Hute tapped into school budgets to provide bottled water to roughly 500 students and 150 teachers. “I’ve gotten no help from anybody,” Hute told me earlier this spring. According to Rock, no local, state, or federal agency provided the town with bottled water or filters.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, utilities are required to notify their customers if water has contaminant levels above the EPA’s threshold. If they fail to do so, the law calls for the “primacy agency”—in Sanders’ case, the state—to intervene. After 30 days, the EPA steps in.
Though the policy sounds simple enough, the reality is far murkier. Dr. Bruce Macler, an EPA toxicologist who helped decide to tell Sanders residents that
This article has been updated.