Source: Indian Country Media Nework
There are places near the Gila River where the cottonwoods—otherwise pervasive in Southwest riverbeds—do not grow. Some members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe believe that is just one legacy of the dioxin-containing herbicide silvex, which was sprayed on the reservation in the 1960s and ’70s—at the same time that Agent Orange, a similar compound, was being dumped onto Vietnam’s countryside in an act of war.
The cottonwoods are not the only casualties of silvex. Entire families of San Carlos Apache basket weavers have passed on, victims of cancer. Those cancers, some tribal members believe, were caused by silvex when the basket weavers absorbed the noxious chemicals from the plants they stripped of bark with their teeth. Moreover, doctors and nurses who worked in the emergency room at the San Carlos hospital seem to have died of cancers at an unusually high rate, according to Charles Vargas, director of the Sovereign Apache Nation Chamber of Commerce.
Now, tribal members are seeking answers. With soil and water testing just beginning, the evidence is circumstantial. But those who see health impacts on San Carlos similar to those suffered by people exposed to Agent Orange are determined to prove the connection.
The links between dioxin, cancer and birth defects are solid, and Vargas and attorney Michael Paul Hill, another San Carlos Apache tribal member, are resolved to prove that these factors are influencing San Carlos Apache residents’ health. The circumstantial evidence is strong, and a nascent investigation is now under way. On January 18 Harry Allen, chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 9 Emergency Response Section, visited San Carlos and took soil samples to check for silvex contamination at open dumps, two airstrips, the cottonwood-bereft stretch of the Gila River bank, and a field in an agricultural area.
Improperly stored barrels of everything from herbicides to paint and oil have been found on San Carlos in the past. In 1996, said Matt McReynolds, Assistant Attorney General for the tribe, an EPA incident report showed that seven barrels were removed from the basement of the Head Start office. Six of the barrels contained paint and lubricants; the seventh barrel contained an unidentified herbicide.
More barrels were stored under the old jail, said Vargas, and additional barrels have been found around the reservation, many exposed to the weather and corrosion, according to Hill.
In Arizona, the ostensible aim of the Gila River Phreatophyte Project—the silvex spraying program—was to destroy groundwater-guzzling vegetation in order to save water for the burgeoning city of Phoenix. The project area was a 15-mile stretch of the Gila River located on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. One reason the reservation was chosen, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), was that the project could go forward without getting permissions and cooperation from multiple landowners. The tribe, with the approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), signed off on the spraying on May 28, 1962. Tribal leadership declined to comment for this story.
As early as the 1960s, labels on commercial silvex warned against reusing the containers, or even washing them out, with special warnings against contaminating irrigation ditches, water intended for domestic use, waterways and lakes. But that didn’t stop the BIA from allegedly giving empty silvex drums to the tribe’s Game and Fish Department, which handed them out to people on San Carlos to use as water barrels during ceremonies.
“People used them at the ceremonies, put the water in there, and then the water when it heats up gets contaminated; everybody’s contaminated,” said Hill.
At the same time the Forest Service was spraying silvex on the reservation in Arizona, the U.S. military was spraying Agent Orange over villages and crops in Vietnam to eliminate dense vegetation that provided cover for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops and to destroy their food sources. Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. sprayed more than 3.5 million acres of jungle with 11.4 million gallons of defoliants.