IHS To Monitor Uranium Exposure - Koda Energy Wins SMSC Award
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – By the end of the year, Indian Health Service will begin medical monitoring clinics across the Navajo Nation to screen individuals for non-job-related exposure to uranium.
Dr. Douglas Peter, chief medical officer and deputy director for the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, said IHS was charged with conducting the study during discussions with U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and the former House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as part of a five-year plan to address uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation.
Among those to be included in the study are volunteers from Red Mesa, Dennehotso, Steamboat, Lower Greasewood and Ganado chapters referred by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who participated in a 2008-2009 water contamination household survey.
Individuals in other areas who believe they have non-occupational exposure to uranium also can volunteer to enroll in the monitoring project. Over the next couple months, Indian Health Service staff will be working with focus groups in various communities to ensure they are capturing the type of information people in the communities feel most strongly about.
“We also want to capture data that potential researchers may be interested in getting information on so that it's part of the medical record as we go forward,” Peter said. He discussed plans for the screening during a recent Navajo Uranium Contamination Stakeholder's Workshop in Gallup.
One of the issues was whether to train all of the 4,500 Indian Health Service staff to do the monitoring or try another approach.
“The important thing, I think, for assessing the health study is you have the same individuals conducting the same work at all of the locations,” Peter said. This ensures consistency in the data-gathering process. They decided to move ahead with a centralized approach and are currently in the process of hiring staff.
After Congress approved the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in the 1970s, Indian Health Service, in consultation with the Navajo Nation, established RECA-derived clinics to screen for uranium in former miners, millers and, later, downwinders.
“That was done by the same individuals providing the services in all the locations,” Peter said, “so we're building on that same model that was successful back in the 1970s and '80s.” Preliminary work is being done to identify clinics. Tentative locations include Tuba City, Kayenta, Chinle, the Four Corners area, and some place in the Gallup area.
Indian Health Service has been diagnosing and treating health conditions among Native Americans since the mid-1950s and has a substantial database of more than a quarter million medical records.
When Peter first came to the Navajo Nation about 35 years ago, he said, “I knew what I knew from my medical training, but that didn't involve much discussion on uranium or heavy metals or anything like that. That's true of most providers when they come to the reservation. They're not familiar necessarily all the time with hantavirus, plague, and uranium issues.”
Part of IHS's role and effort in the last couple years has been to educate its clinicians and other providers on issues related to heavy metals – in particular, uranium – and the health effects of what's known and what isn't known, he said.
“Thirty-five years ago we were discussing lung disease and occupational exposure and trying to identify all the people we could. As it turns out, there were thousands of them that were exposed or living by tailings piles, or were drivers or historical miners or exposed in the homes.
“More recently we've had to fill in the gaps of knowledge regarding risk exposure, whether it's vicinity exposure or whether it's direct exposure of a non-occupational nature,” he said. “Not a lot is known yet about non-occupational exposure.”
Peter and IHS clinicians get questioned all the time about unique diseases such as Navajo neuropathy and stomach cancer and whether it's related to uranium exposure, he said, “but there's nothing much in the (medical) literature about stomach cancer and uranium. What association is there between uranium and the unique genetic situations we see sometime on Navajo? Those questions remain to be answered.”
Indian Health Service is involved in ongoing discussions with tribal, federal and state agencies and universities and Peter said he is hopeful the study they are going to be participating in will help answer some of those questions. “We've proposed to the committee a longitudinal long-term study that would look at all kinds of health effects.”
Johnnye Lewis, director of the Community Environmental Health Program and principal investigator for the Dine Network for Environmental Health (DiNEH) Project, is spearheading the first study of health effects from community exposure by looking at integrated exposures in 20 chapters of the Eastern Navajo Agency.
Peter said Lewis' group is trying to better define whether diabetes and kidney disease are made worse by exposure to uranium. With the consent of study participants, it is hoped that they will be able to work together to fill in some of the informational gaps.
The Navajo Uranium Assessment and Kidney Health Project, a National Institutes of Health-funded research project awarded to the University of New Mexico specifically for Eastern Navajo Agency residents, now has more than 1,000 participants.
“Based on the feedback we were getting from clinicians from IHS and the service units we work with, the cases we were seeing even relative to other indigenous populations were a much earlier onset and a much more severe form of the disease, and we were concerned that uranium might be contributing to the disease,” Lewis said.
Though there was a significant potential for exposure, none of the studies on uranium toxicity had been done in Native American communities, she said. However, based on the results of an occupational lung cancer case study, it was known that Native Americans – primarily Navajo miners – were far more susceptible because the structure and shape of the lungs caused increased deposition and retention of inhaled particles.
“So we know that those types of differences exist and that different populations respond differently to different toxicants, but we have no data on this population,” she said.
As Indian Health Service moves ahead with its medical monitoring screening program, it will be building on the work already under way in Eastern Agency. “We work hand-in-hand with Dr. Lewis in defining what that screening should look like,” Peter said.
Koda Energy Winds First Award
By Tessa Lehto
Shakopee, MN – On November 12, 2009, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and Rahr Malting were honored by Friends of the Minnesota Valley at the Friends’ 2009 annual dinner for their joint venture Koda Energy. They were awarded the Leadership in Stewardship Award for their corporate leadership on conservation issues in the Minnesota River Valley.
This was the third year of the award, which is presented to an area business or organization that demonstrates a commitment to the conservation of natural resources in the Lower Minnesota River Watershed. The Leadership in Stewardship Award derives its name from Friends of the Minnesota Valley’s comprehensive conservation programs designed to conserve and enhance wildlife habitat, improve water quality, and promote increased community investment in and stewardship of the Minnesota River.
Lori M. Nelson, Executive Director of Friends of the Minnesota Valley, talked about the award. “Koda Energy demonstrates the kind of conservation partnership, innovation, and leadership that characterizes the Leadership in Stewardship Award and the mission of Friends of the Minnesota Valley. We see benefits not only in the reduced carbon footprint resulting from the operation of the Koda plant, but we are also confident that Koda Energy will provide landowners in the Minnesota Valley with an economically and environmentally-beneficial production alternative to traditional row crop agriculture. Ultimately, this can help improve the water quality of the Minnesota River.”
SMSC Chairman Stanley R. Crooks who is the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Koda Energy, commented on the award. “We are pleased to have been honored along with Rahr Malting for Koda Energy. Together we have devoted a lot of resources to this project, and we are happy this biomass plant burns renewable fuels as a valid alternative to fossil fuel based energy.”
Koda Energy, which began operating in May 2009, is an environmentally friendly energy project. Considerably cleaner than a coal plant and considered CO2 neutral, this combined heat and power plant is the only facility in the United States which burns exclusively natural, non-manmade materials. Using a suspension boiler for maximum efficiency to burn only renewable products, its heat conversion rate is approximately 87% compared to coal, which is about 63%.
Products burned in Koda Energy are agricultural and plant seed byproducts, materials which do not deter land from use as row crops. A combination of barley malt waste, oat hulls from General Mills products like Cheerios, and wood chips are currently burned to generate energy. This biomass energy generation project provides energy for Koda Energy and Rahr Malting, with excess sold to Xcel Energy.
Koda Energy requires 170,000 tons of biomass fuels per year. By-products from Rahr Malting contribute 50,000 tons of fuels; the remainder is provided by contractors who supply Koda Energy with local agri-business by-products, dried wood waste, and other fuels. Future plans are to use dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass as a major fuel source.
The Friends’ Watershed Initiative Coordinator, Scott Sparlin, presented the Leadership in Stewardship Award to Paul Kramer of Rahr Malting, who accepted the award on behalf of Koda Energy and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. Kramer is also the President of Koda Energy.
Over 1,800 members and supporters of Friends of the Minnesota Valley support programs and activities aimed at protecting and promoting the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and conservation programs directed at developing partnerships, promoting citizen engagement, and cultivating conservation leaders within the Lower Minnesota River Watershed.
For more information on the Friends, go to http://www.friendsofmnvalley.org/.
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