Flagstaff, Ariz. » Northern Arizona University is using federal grant money to address two of the most widespread problems on the Navajo Nation — unemployment and uranium contamination.
A $200,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will allow the school’s Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals to train up to 40 people over three years to safely handle radioactive materials and to find a job in a place where the unemployment rate hovers around 50 percent.
About 4 million tons of uranium ore were mined from the reservation from 1944 to 1986 for wartime weapons, leaving a legacy of death and disease. Families still live among the contamination that the tribe and federal government are working toward cleaning up. The top priority is the former Northeast Church Rock Mine near Gallup, N.M.
"Between now and that point the green light is given, we have an opportunity to start this training program and help get people prepared so they have the right credentials," said Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency.
The Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals is encouraging Navajos to apply for the program by Jan. 31. Successful applicants could end up closing off abandoned uranium mines in Cameron; removing contaminated soil in Church Rock, N.M., or near Mexican Hat in Utah; or addressing water supplies around Tuba City. Officials say some drinking water sources have elevated levels of uranium and other radionuclides.
The prime applicants would be Navajos who live in and around those communities who are familiar with the risks of exposure to radioactive materials. But the institute would consider applications from Navajos living off the reservation as well, said program coordinator Roberta Tohannie.
"If I was living in an area that had been contaminated by radioactive waste, I’d be extremely concerned about my health," she said. "If had livestock, I’d be concerned about that, too."
When it comes to cleanup, Tohannie said people should have the appropriate protection and knowledge to work at those sites.
Getting selected for training doesn’t come with a guarantee of employment, but jobs are expected to be available as plans for cleanup materialize. The training will take place in the tribal capital of Window Rock.
Northern Arizona University applied for the grant in fiscal year 2012 but didn’t receive the money. The institute’s executive director, Ann Marie Chischilly, said the school sought support from Navajo officials before reapplying.
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