Nineteen Navajos graduated this week from a three-week federal training program that certified them to handle radioactive waste in contamination cleanups. Hundreds attended their ceremony on December 4, including their families, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency out of San Francisco, and Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly in Gallup, New Mexico.
Similar trainings, free but unpaid for participants, are part of a program called the Superfund Job Training Initiative. They have been conducted across the country, founded on an EPA conception of environmental justice that encourages young people to build careers cleaning up hazardous waste near their parents’ homes. This was the first training offered exclusively for participants of a tribe or members of a tribe.
Shelly and others expressed their hope during the ceremony that there will be many more such trainings, both to put a staggering 50 percent of unemployed Navajos back to work, and to address a toxic legacy of no less than 520 sites across the Navajo Nation where past mining has contaminated land, water and air, and homes.
“This is like turning on the faucet,” Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation EPA, said of the graduates. “These are just the first few drops.”
It is a well-established fact that past uranium mining has contaminated homes, land and soil in areas across the reservation. Drinking water in at least 22 wells is unfit for consumption by people or livestock. Researchers at regional universities have documented numerous cancers and other ailments among Navajos that are attributable to radiation.
Etsitty said cleanup has gotten a slow start for a number of reasons. In the early days, he points out, mining companies genuinely weren’t aware of the health risks associated with uranium. As they became aware, they simply didn’t want to face their mounting responsibilities to nearby communities and the environment. Furthermore, Etsitty said, it’s taken three decades to establish the positive working relationship that exists today between the federal EPA and the Navajo Nation. And even though that rapport and cooperation exists now, the Navajo Nation must compete for cleanup funds with myriad other polluted sites of various kinds across the country.
Finally, tracking down responsible companies occupies the time of many lawyers and Navajo Nation EPA staff members. Many of the companies have gone defunct, but a few are still accessible. Still others end up in bankruptcy courts – where the Navajo Nation tends to show up to collect some of its cleanup funds.
And as those funds become available, so do jobs. Jobs were the central theme of officials who addressed the 19 graduates on Tuesday night.
Based on the amount of work that’s needed on past uranium mines, Etsitty said, “Somebody could develop an entire career. Somebody in this initial graduating class could end up launching their own construction company or environmental radiation program. It’s going to take a lot more people than these initial 19, a lot more than the 85 people in my entire agency.”
Clancy Tenley, Superfund assistant director for EPA’s Region 9 based in San Francisco, said the EPA and other federal agencies have embarked on a coordinated effort over the past five years costing $50 million. They’ve torn down 34 homes that were ruined by radiation, and they’ve rebuilt 17 of them. They’ve sampled 240 unregulated water supplies, like springs, that get ignored in conventional well testing – and they’ve built $29 million worth of new water pipes so people don’t have to rely on the contaminated ones for their water. They’ve tackled 9 of the 520 open pit mines, “starting with the worst ones first,” he said.
This coming year, more mine cleanups are planned both by the EPA and by companies that have been hit with federal enforcement actions – including General Electric, United Nuclear Corporation, Chevron Mining and Rio Algom. And more home replacements are planned, in line with a $3 million federal-tribal partnership that aims to keep the jobs local.
“That work will go on for a long time,” Tenley told the graduates and their supporters. “Navajo uranium workers made a great contribution to the safety of the nation. It’s only fair that we work together and make this contribution to the safety and security of the miners’ families that still live near the mines.”
Darrell Jimson, Navajo, a planner with the Navajo Community Housing & Infrastructure Department, told the graduates that they’re now prepared to work with his organization, tasked with rebuilding many of the condemned homes.
“I look forward to seeing your applications on my desk,” he told them. “You have my business cards. You know where I’m at.”
Shelly said the next major mine cleanup will be at the Northeast Church Rock site, 14 miles east of Gallup, where an open pit and mine tailings – and remnants of a little-known but enormous spill during the Three Mile Island era – await cleanup pending an EPA permit.
“Once the permit comes out, it’s a go,” Shelly said. “I’m hoping to see that we do a groundbreaking next year to get Church Rock going. Meaning, there are a lot of jobs over there.”
The graduates, including 6 women and 13 men, received the talk of jobs with obvious enthusiasm. But for graduate Sara Yellowhair Gilbert, who also addressed Tuesday night’s crowd, the opportunity goes deeper than that.
“This training was very intense,” she said, noting the classes covered CPR, environmental remediation, environmental justice, radon communications, hazardous operations and emergency responder skills. “I especially would like to expound on the environmental justice. This portion of the training, especially as a First Nation Diné person, reaffirmed the spiritual interdependence with creation, our Mother Earth. Most American Indians believe that all creation has a spiritual component, because all things were made by the Supreme Creator. … This concept helped me to better understand the principles of environmental justice, that we should respect our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves and the world.”