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Building Community Capacity:
Training and Assessments of Uranium Impacts in Diné Communities

Chris Shuey, SRIC's environmental health specialist, works with Navajo communities on issues related to uranium and health. This article reflects some of his recent experiences with training and assessement activities with Diné communities.

Flashing a wry smile, Ed Carlisle tells about 70 people attending the Navajo Abandoned Uranium Mines Collaboration conference in Albuquerque in April that I've made his life "miserable." And he says it again a week later after I had briefed his bosses - the elected officers of Church Rock Chapter - on a proposal to unite community members with scientists to monitor the environment around homes located close, or even next to, abandoned uranium mine waste dumps.

Now, Ed Carlisle is not really blaming me for his recent misery. I'm simply the guy who encouraged him to take part in a series of training sessions on environmental health concerns centered around uranium mining impacts in the Eastern Navajo Agency where Church Rock is located. These training sessions were organized by SRIC and the staff of the Eastern Navajo Health Board (ENHB). For many years, Health Board members and health care providers in the area have wondered whether environmental agents, particularly uranium, play a role in the high rates of kidney disease observed in the Crownpoint Service Unit (CSU) of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service (NAIHS).

Ed Carlisle attended all four of the Board's training sessions beginning last December, learning the techniques of community-based research. From this experience, he gained knowledge and insight into how to assess the myriad environmental problems that affect his community. Hence, the source of his consternation.

As community coordinator for Church Rock Chapter, a position similar to that of a town or county manager, it's Carlisle's job to look out for the health and safety of local residents. He now understands you need good environmental data to assess the risks posed by human exposure to radioactive materials and trace metals in air, soils and water. The problem is, the available environmental data for the Church Rock area are 15 to 30 years old and uncertainty reigns over the current environmental conditions there, which was heavily mined for uranium starting in the 1950s and continuing through the mid-1980s. What is known about the impacts of past uranium mining is inhibiting critically needed development in the community, especially new housing. And Carlisle is now caught between the need to move that development along quickly while ensuring that the current and future residents of the community are protected.

"Our priorities are education first, then housing, water, and economic development," Carlisle says, citing his community's draft Comprehensive Land Use Plan. "But we're told that the environment may not be safe, so we have to find out. We're not educated yet about these problems, we're not scientists. Right now, we don't know."

But Ed Carlisle and many other Eastern Agency leaders are learning that they can use the same tools that scientists employ to find answers to questions that continue to confront their communities a half-century after uranium was first mined in the Eastern Agency. The Health Board's education and training program proved, if anything, that building community capacity starts with having a basic understanding of the nexus between human exposures and toxins in the environment. And in the Navajo context, we're finding that weaving Diné language and knowledge about natural processes deepens that understanding.

Health Board Education and Training Program

The idea to conduct educational training for community leaders in the methods of community-based environmental health research flowed from the Health Board's support for and participation in the Navajo Uranium Assessment and Kidney Health Project (NUAKHP). The proposed five year study is a collaboration with two universities, the Crownpoint IHS Hospital, the Navajo Nation's environmental agency and SRIC. Its principal goal is to assess whether chronic ingestion of uranium in drinking water contributes to kidney damage and kidney disease in the local population where kidney disease rates are at least three times greater than the national average. The study would measure uranium and other renal toxicants in unregulated water sources in 20 chapters in the Eastern Agency, interview people about their water use patterns, environmental exposures and health status, collect blood and urine samples from a segment of the population, and examine those samples for biological markers of kidney damage. Navajo-speaking environmental health workers would be hired by the Board to team with outside researchers to conduct the study, and the Board would be intimately involved in administration and fiscal management of the study.

While the NUAKHP is intended to address a pressing environmental health concern in the community, it is also aimed at increasing the capacity of a long-standing community-based institution, the Eastern Navajo Health Board, to conduct it owns scientific and medical research in years to come. The proposed $1.8 million study is being reviewed by the National Institutes of Health.

To ensure that Board members, who represent the 16 Navajo chapters in CSU, are prepared to oversee the study, should it be funded, the Board asked SRIC in May 2001 to develop a proposal for an educational and training program on environmental health research methods. A $50,000 grant was awarded by the federal Indian Health Service in late 2001, and the Board formed an Environmental Health Committee to oversee the training program. Several planning meetings and focus groups were conducted in 2002 to receive advice and direction on program context and methodologies from Health Board members, chapter officers, community health representatives, health educators and environmental specialists. The clear consensus of this planning process was that uranium-mining impacts should be used as "case studies" to learn about environmental health principles, and that every effort should be made to incorporate Navajo language, values and understandings in the instruction.

Out of this process emerged a series of three two-day training sessions held between December 2002 and March 2003. A fourth, half-day session held in May focused exclusively on Navajo language interpretation of key English environmental and scientific terms (see table). The Board's Environmental Health Committee, chaired by Thomas Manning, Sr., a semi-retired X-ray technician at the Crownpoint Hospital who represents Littlewater Chapter on ENHB, directed the program, which was implemented by the Committee's project coordinator, Crownpoint resident Bess Seschillie. As the Board's technical services contractor, I helped develop the program's content and written materials and arranged for presentations by educators, specialists and community leaders. Frank Morgan, a former Diné College instructor and Navajo language specialist, served as the program's interpreter/translator. Many of the presenters were familiar with the impetus for the program having participated in development of the proposed NUAKHP. Substantial contributions to the effort were made by Vivian Craig, Navajo EPA; Perry Charley and Linda (Torres) Garcia, Diné College; Dr. Johnnye Lewis, University of New Mexico; and Mansel Nelson, Northern Arizona University.

Based on recommendations made during the planning process and on the direction of the Environmental Health committee, special emphasis was placed what we called "Uranium 101" - that is, what uranium is, how and where it occurs, how it was mined, what the impacts of mining were and how those impacts are manifest today, and how it may adversely affect a person's health. An important example was a presentation by Dr. Steve Semken, a Diné College geology professor, titled "Rocks, Water, Metal," which wove Navajo teachings about environmental processes with Western geological and geochemical concepts. Other presentations addressed radiation concepts, radon occurrence and health hazards, risk and probability, the renal toxicity of uranium, ground-water science and water quality, uranium in situ leach mining, elements of the proposed NUAKHP, and requirements for approval of human health studies by the Navajo Nation's Human Research Review Board.

Sixty-five different people - ranging from Health Board members and Diné College students to chapter coordinators, Community Health Representatives (CHRs) and representatives of community groups - attended the three main sessions. Twelve-question tests were given at the beginning and end of each session to evaluate whether the participants' knowledge of the information presented increased as a result of the training. The number of participants who improved their scores was substantially greater than those who remained the same or went down in all three training sessions. Test-score improvement was statistically significant for Health Board members - the primary target audience for the program - in the first session when much of the key background information was presented.

Of all the participants, Ed Carlisle seemed to readily apply what he learned as the sessions progressed. He often talked about the environmental problems and challenges in Church Rock in terms given during the training. During the second session, he even brought a map of the Chapter showing the locations of polluting facilities - uranium mines and processing sites, a natural gas plant, an abandoned military ordnance depot, landfills and pipelines - and talked about how close people lived to these contaminant sources. It was obvious he had applied an important environmental health conceptual model that I had presented during the first session. The model is a simple but logical way for anyone to examine the relationships among sources of pollutants, their presence in the environment, how people are exposed to those pollutants, whether they receive a "dose" of biological importance, and how health effects may result from those exposures.

Church Rock's Environmental Health Concerns

What Ed Carlisle came to understand as a result of the ENHB's training sessions was that the current residents of Church Rock probably face greater health risks because they live in an area heavily impacted by past uranium mining activities and other sources of pollutants. In many cases, dozens of families live literally in the shadows of abandoned mines and air-pollutant sources. In addition, many current residents worked in the underground mines in the '60s, '70s and early '80s, thus being subjected to allowable occupational radiation exposures that are hundreds of times higher than federal limits on exposures to members of the public.

Environmental studies conducted by mining companies back in the 1980s found high levels of radon - the short-lived radioactive gas associated with excess lung cancer among underground uranium miners - at several monitoring stations in the Church Rock area (see Table page 8). More than a dozen mines, a uranium mill and tailings facility that is now a Superfund site, and numerous uranium exploration holes are abandoned in a 60-square-mile area in the northern portion of the chapter. Many of the mine sites, including two that were operated as late as 1983, remain unreclaimed, presumably releasing contaminants to the environment on a routine basis. Untreated or poorly treated water from underground mines was released to the local stream system for 20 years, increasing the levels of radionuclides and heavy metals in riverbed sediments that have long since dried up and now blow for miles in the frequent spring and summer winds. Levels of uranium detected in the edible muscle and organs of livestock that grazed and watered in the area during the mining era were found to be significantly higher than in animals that were not raised in uranium mining districts.

As Carlisle's map showed, other sources of environmental contaminants may affect people living in the community. The natural gas processing plant, for example, is located less than 2 miles upwind of Church Rock Village, a housing area that is home to about a third of the Chapter's 2,800 residents. Residents object to chronic "noxious odors" (hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide), and Chapter officials have written letters to the state Environment Department opposing proposed increases in emissions of nitrogen oxides from the plant.

Yet it is uranium mining that characterizes the history of industrial development in Church Rock. Indeed, the community is best known in Native American and environmental justice circles for the July 16, 1979, uranium tailings dam failure at the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) uranium mill that released 94 million gallons of acidic wastewater and 1,100 tons of radioactive tailings to the North Fork of the Puerco River. (The UNC tailings impoundment is now the federal Superfund site referred to previously.) While the dam failure was the object of much public and regulatory attention in the early-1980s, chronic mine water discharges to the Puerco between 1969 and 1986 released hundreds of times more radioactivity to the environment than the single-event tailings spill. And even though levels of outdoor radon were, on average, 10 to 30 times higher than background in areas of northwestern New Mexico not affected by uranium mining, and maximum concentrations at several stations were 50 to 65 times greater than normal, no studies were conducted to determine the source or sources of those high levels.

One of the radon monitoring stations set up by UNC in 1980 is a particular source of heartburn for Ed Carlisle. The monitor at the Springstead Trailer Park, which housed some of the area's uranium workers at the time, recorded one of the highest annual average concentrations of radon in air and the third highest maximum level. The tract where the trailer park was located is only 1 to 1.5 miles from two abandoned 1950s-era mines that may have released contaminants to a drainage that bisects the tract. The site is also located less than 1.5 miles south of the North Fork of the Puerco and, under the right set of atmospheric conditions, may have received deposition of wind-blown river bed sediments. The trailer park was dismantled and a trading post on the site was abandoned in the late-1980s after mining in the area ceased.

But use of the Springstead tract has been revived as a result of the Chapter's critical need for new housing. A plan to build up to 900 single-family homes, duplexes and apartments on the 640-acre site, along with the various amenities of a planned community, is now subject to public comment as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decides whether to release nearly $12 million in federal Indian housing funds to the Navajo Housing Authority to build the first 82 homes and related infrastructure on the site. A recently released environmental assessment for the project does not address current environmental conditions at the Springstead, such as radionuclide levels in soil and air or the quality of water in three existing wells on the property.

Therein lies the conflict for Ed Carlisle and one of his bosses, Chapter President Johnny Livingston. On one hand, they don't want to object to the Springstead Estates development on environmental grounds because of the desperate need for quality new housing for the community. At the same time, they say they must be assured that the site is safe for the projected 4,000 people who will eventually live there when the project is completed in five to six years. "Plus, the Chapter could face legal and financial liability if people who move in there become sick later on," Carlisle says. "We have an obligation to provide a safe living environment for our people."

Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project

That obligation, combined with the education and training he received by participating in the Health Board's environmental health program, convinced Carlisle that Church Rock Chapter needed to conduct its own environmental monitoring to generate new data that would be used to estimate population exposures, plan future health studies, and most important, determine if lands currently occupied and those slated for residential development - like Springstead - are safe for human habitation. When I learned about a possible funding source for work of that nature in February, I called Ed to tell him about the opportunity and how I thought it might work for Church Rock. He asked me to help develop a scope of work for monitoring air, soils and water in residential areas affected by uranium mining.

Out of this conjoining of knowledge and circumstance emerged the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project. Its aim is to measure radiation levels in soils and air, and radionuclide and trace metal concentrations in local water sources, in three specific residential areas located close to abandoned uranium mining sites. The project (labeled with the erascible sounding acronym "CRUMP") will be carried out by a team of community people and scientists having specialities in gamma radiation surveying, outdoor monitoring for radon and respirable dust particles, indoor radon monitoring, and water sampling and laboratory analyses. Community members will be paid to participate in the field work, provide updates to the Chapter officials, and act as liaisons with the community at large. Ongoing field work and monitoring results will be shared with residents in community education and information meetings conducted in the Navajo language.

CRUMP not only represents a Navajo community's first steps at self-assessment of environmental health risks, but also a determined spirit to "do something" about 50-year-old uranium impacts that's being fostered by the ad hoc Navajo Abandoned Uranium Mine Collaboration. On a hot and windy day in June, members of the CRUMP assessment team walked across the three purposed study areas and observed first hand the close proximity of residences to mine waste dumps and the blowing of dust from those dumps onto grazing lands a short distance from homes located across the Navajo Reservation boundary. That evening, more than 60 community members came to the Church Rock Chapter House to enjoy a Navajo taco dinner and Navajo language presentation on the project given by Perry Charley, director of the Uranium Education Program at Dine College in Shiprock. At a technical meeting of the assessment team the next day, staff of the U.S. EPA's Radiation and Indoor Environments Laboratory in Las Vegas committed to bringing their gamma radiation "scanner van" to identify radiation "hot spots" throughout the community. Assessment team member Annabelle Allison, director of the Tribal Air Monitoring Support (TAMS) Center in Las Vegas, recommended installing PM 2.5 (particulate matter measuring 2.5 to 10 microns in diameter) monitors in residential areas exposed to blowing dust. And Vivian Craig, manager of the Navajo EPA's Radon Program, said she will install 7-day indoor radon cannisters in 175 homes in the area. Plans were made to identify and assess unregulated water sources for possible future water sampling and analysis.

These were among the "benefits" that Chapter President Livingston insisted must come from the project. And even Ed Carlisle looked and acted decidedly less miserable. "We have many friends who are willing to help us," he said at the conclusion of the two-day site visit. "Now we will get the answers we need to move our community forward."

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"When uranium mining and processing became big business during the Cold War, the federal government subsidized the industry. Most of the United States' uranium came out of Navajo ground. The Navajo people had a nominal say in the process at the time, but have endured all of the consequences since then. The land was torn open for our nuclear arsenal and the Navajo people are still dying from the cancers and illnesses that it caused.

I do not want a fourth generation of my people to suffer from the physical, psychological and cultural devastation caused by predatory energy practices. The lack of tribal consent contained in the Indian Energy title means that the federal government could override the Navajo law that prohibits uranium-mining activities on our land."
–Joe Shirley, Jr. President, Navajo Nation
"Senate Energy Bill Exploits Indian Resources"
Albuquerque Journal, July 18, 2003

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