Collaborative Study on Navajo Nation Reveals Challenges and Insights in Combating Mining Contamination

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Posted: April 21, 2024

Collaborative Study on Navajo Nation Reveals Challenges and Insights in Combating Mining Contamination

"The authors describe this initiative as fostering 'meaningful relationships and an important collaboration between a tribal chapter and a university,' emphasizing its role in blending cultural and scientific experiential learning for all participants."

In a collaborative effort involving tribal leaders, researchers, high school students, and teachers, a study on the Navajo Nation addressed the environmental health risks linked to historical mining activities.

This research centered on the contamination of soil and groundwater with uranium and arsenic, which poses a significant risk to the Diné and other indigenous residents dependent on these sources for drinking, livestock, and irrigation.

Science of The Total Environment published "Diné citizen science: Phytoremediation of uranium and arsenic in the Navajo Nation" reporting how the team explored phytoremediation, a method employing plants to absorb, sequester, and detoxify pollutants from soil and water, as a potential remedy for this contamination. The authors describe this initiative as fostering "meaningful relationships and an important collaboration between a tribal chapter and a university," emphasizing its role in blending cultural and scientific experiential learning for all participants.

This project sought to leverage the natural capabilities of sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) for phytoremediation, aiming to use this low-cost, on-site method to mitigate the environmental impacts of uranium and arsenic.

By combining historical data from the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency (NNEPA) with newly collected samples, the study provided a comprehensive look at the levels of contamination and the feasibility of phytoremediation under the unique conditions of the Navajo Nation.

The study revealed significant challenges.

For the wells sampled by the NNEPA, "9.5% exceeded the maximum contaminant level for uranium (30 μg per liter) and 16% for arsenic (10 μg per liter)."

To put the unit of "μg per liter" into perspective, it's equivalent to comparing a tiny pinch of salt in a large swimming pool. Despite this seemingly small concentration, the impact on health and the environment can be profound.

The investigation found that in the arid conditions of the Navajo Nation, sunflowers did not reduce the concentration of these contaminants. The experiment showed "no change in arsenic concentration and an increase in uranium concentration in both planted and control treatments," attributing the increase in uranium to the weathering of uranium-bearing minerals in the desert soil.

This project not only highlighted the limitations of phytoremediation in certain environmental contexts but also emphasized the importance of prevention and conventional remediation strategies, especially in areas affected by uranium mining.

Despite these challenges, the collaboration between the tribal community and academic researchers is an example of the potential for integrating indigenous knowledge with scientific inquiry.

This partnership approach in environmental science seeks to create more inclusive and effective solutions to address the challenges posed by historical contamination and environmental degradation, offering a meaningful path forward that respects and utilizes the insights of all community members involved.

Read "Diné citizen science: Phytoremediation of uranium and arsenic in the Navajo Nation".

Authors: Zak R. Webber, Kei G.I. Webber, Tommy Rock, Isaac St. Clair, Carson Thompson, Sarah Groenwald, Zach Aanderud, Gregory T. Carling, Rebecca J. Frei, Benjamin W. Abbott