Reilly Mini Grant Update: Detection of Elevated Uranium Levels on the Navajo Nation

Detection of Elevated Uranium Levels on the Navajo Nation Claim 28

Reilly Center Mini-Grant Update – March 2017
This research was made possible by a grant submitted to the Reilly Center from GLOBES students Teresa Baumer and Luke Saderski. 

Written by grantees Teresa Baumer (Reilly GLOBES), Nikki Moore, Meena Said, and Luke Sadergaski (Reilly GLOBES)

Introduction

During the nuclear arms race, the United States sought to gain supremacy by developing and amassing large quantities of nuclear weapons. In the late 1940s, the government incentivized a “uranium rush” to obtain the raw material needed for these weapons. The uranium rich land of the Navajo Nation was the target of many miners seeking to take advantage of government incentives. Mining companies stripped the land of its precious resources then abandoned the sites without taking proper measures to remediate their actions. Mill tailings and waste pits, containing radioactive materials were left unmarked and exposed to the environment. The companies responsible for the devastation of the Navajo homeland no longer exist, leaving no party to be held accountable for the remediation of these sites. Improper management of abandoned mines has led to vast contamination of the Navajo lands and waterways where residents lack the funding, education, and resources to identify and decontaminate polluted areas. People living in the affected areas are often responsible for petitioning the government for funds to decontaminate the land and must provide scientific evidence to improve their chances of receiving funding.

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The Blue Gap-Tachee Chapter of the Navajo Nation in Blue Gap, Arizona, is home to many of these abandoned uranium mines. The largest abandoned uranium mine in the Blue Gap-Tachee Region, Claim 28, produced around 4181 tons of uranium during the 1950s and 60s. After the uranium was extracted, Claim 28 was abandoned and the radioactive mine waste left in a pile and placed in a fenced area. Nothing was done to prevent the waste from being carried by runoff which poses a continued health concern to the people living in the area, particularly the people inhabiting the 17 houses within one mile of the claim. Figure 1 shows the view standing on top of the abandoned mine. Sadie Bill’s house and the pond she uses to water her livestock can be seen. These local residents have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the federal government to remediate the site but with little scientific data to show the extent of the contamination, these people have little power to challenge the government and demand the site be remediated.

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For these reason, the locals living around Claim 28 reached out to the University of Notre Dame to see if we would be willing to help. With the generous support of the John J. Reilly Center at Notre Dame, we were able to analyze soil samples in the area for increased uranium concentrations and report this data back to the Navajo people.

Results

The samples were obtained from colleagues located in New Mexico. We originally planned to obtain the samples ourselves, but the US Government closed the site between May- October 2016. When they finally allowed people to access the site again, our colleagues immediately obtained samples for us in case the site was closed again. The locations where samples were taken can be seen in Figure 2. As you can see, Sadie Bill’s house and livestock watering pond are within several hundred feet of the mine.

Navajo mini grant

All samples were analyzed at Notre Dame in Stinson-Remick and Fitzpatrick Halls. They were first ground down using a mortar and pestle and digested in concentrated acid before being analyzed with inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) (Figure 3). Table 1 shows the uranium concentrations obtained from ICP-MS at the different sampling sites. The concentrations were also compared to the North American Shale Composite (NASC) values to determine how high the uranium concentrations were around Claim 28 compared to “ordinary” North American soils.

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Conclusions

Our research has shown that the people around Claim 28 are living with elevated uranium levels in their soil. While this information will be helpful for the Navajo people to argue their case to the US Government, we plan to use the remaining money granted to us by the Reilly Center to provide them with even more substantial data. Determining the isotope ratios of the uranium and lead in local yards and matching these ratios with the uranium from the mine will give undisputable evidence that the elevated uranium concentrations are from the mine. With our future work, we also intend to analyze how rainwater effects the removal of the uranium from the soil. This will give insight into how mobile the uranium is and how it will migrate to people’s yards in the future.

Navajo Mini Grant students

In Spring 2017, we will be returning to the Navajo Nation to present our findings to the Navajo people are a Blue-Gap Tachee Chapter House meeting. They will then be able to use our findings to present to the US Government as evidence as to why Claim 28 needs to be prioritized to receive government funding for remediation of this site. This work would not have been possible without the support of the John J. Reilly Center.

 

Originally published by Jessica Baron at reilly.nd.edu on March 18, 2017.