Navajo EPA Team Receives National Award
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. EPA employees involved in assessing and removing Navajo homes built from uranium-contaminated materials have received national recognition.
From 1944 to 1986, nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands for use in the developent of atomic power and nuclear weapons. Today those mines are closed, but the legacy remains - 520 abandoned uranium mines and many homes built with contaminated mine waste.
Clancy Tenley of U.S. EPA Region 9 in San Francisco notified Navajo EPA officials Friday that those involved in the Navajo Contaminated Homes Project have won EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response Environmental Justice team award.
“These are very competitive national awards,” Tenley said, and are part of the office's “National Notables” award program.
“On behalf of Region 9's Superfund program I would like to congratulate the Navajo EPA employees that are working with our staff on this project, and to thank you for your continued partnership. While the work is far from over, it is rewarding to see that the significance of the team's efforts are recognized nationally,” Tenley said.
Chronic exposure to these threats poses a risk of lung cancer, bone cancer, and impaired kidney function, according to EPA. In October 2007, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation “a 40-year bipartisan failure of government.”
In response, Region 9, partnering with Navajo EPA, has led a five-year plan to address the contamination. Since the project's inception in 2008, the team has screened nearly 200 structures for potential contamination and completed demolition and excavation of 27 contaminated structures and 10 residential yards. They also completed the construction of 14 new homes and provided compensation to families wishing to reconstruct structures themselves.
“We didn't know what it was then – the uranium – and what kind of effects it has on people,” said Lewis Tutt, a Navajo resident who was living in a contaminated home. “Many people built their houses using some of the materials from the mine.
“When EPA came in from San Francisco several months ago, we figured it was just another test they would do and then disappear. But to our surprise, things just started happening, almost immediately. Now we are happy, they are hauling houses away, work is being done.”
The team screened homes, hogans, and storage buildings for the presence of radiation. Building materials from nearby uranium mines – rocks, gravel and aggregate from mine spoils – often were used to construct homes.
“Resources can be hard to come by out here,” said Luis Garcia-Bakarich, community involvement coordinator for U.S. EPA. “Why drive 60 to 100 miles and buy bricks or building materials when these were a readily available resource? They were free for the taking. Why not?”
Structures also were contaminated by the presence of radiological materials found in outdoor soils and by dust brought into the homes on shoes and clothing, according to EPA.
In order to screen homes, the team met with the occupants, described the program, and asked residents to sign an access agreement. In many cases, residents were elderly and spoke only Navajo, so a Navajo interpreter was required. The team worked with residents to choose designs for replacement homes, or if the resident chose to rebuild themselves, to reach agreement on a fair price for cash payment.
“If the residents requested, EPA made arrangements for traditional ceremonies in keeping with cultural customs, to be performed on these structures,” said Jason Musante of EPA's Emergency Response Section. EPA anticipates assessing at least 500 structures across the reservation at a rate of approximately 100 per year.
The project team includes: Vivian Craig, John Plummer, Eugene Esplain, Michele Dineyazhe, Freida White, Jerry Begay, Stanley Edison, and Lillie Lane of Navajo EPA; and Will Duncan, Richard Martin, Luis Garcia-Bakarich, Taly Jolish, Sara Goldsmith, Sara Jacobs, Monica O’Sullivan, and Zoe Heller of U.S. EPA.Navajo EPA
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