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.