NEHA November 2022 Journal of Environmental Health

November 2022 • Journal of Environmental Health 35 ronmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), and CDC, hosts a summer internship program that trains up to 15 students in brownfield remediation methods. These methods include toxicology, measurement of environmental toxins, community engagement, and strategies for cleanup. According to Dr. Donald K. Robinson, Jr., associate professor at Diné College, the program provides room, board, and a stipend for all students who complete the internship. Dr. Robinson works with Dr. Laurel Berman, an environmental health scientist at CDC, to provide hands-on brownfield remediation training (Photo 1). “The training involves identifying the toxic area and designing restoration or cleanup methods to make it visually acceptable to the community,” Dr. Robinson said. “This summer we’re also learning GIS to identify digital mapping methods for brownfields.” Interns and faculty communicate directly with Navajo Nation residents to collect community input on land reclamation projects. The Navajo reservation is divided into approximately 100 chapters that each convene monthly public meetings. When Dr. Robinson’s team starts work on a brownfield, he contacts the president of the chapter in which that brownfield is located and asks to present on the remediation project at the next chapter meeting. “We’ll schedule ourselves on the agenda, go to the meeting and publicly speak, and then ask for questions and comments. Sometimes we’re requested to come back with more information on certain things,” Dr. Robinson explained. “We’ll get community feedback on what they would like as far as reclamation.” At the meetings, Dr. Robinson, who is not Navajo himself, makes sure to have Navajo representation present. “A lot of times we have to translate into Navajo because some of the people in the chapter are not Englishspeaking,” he said. “So, I make sure I have a Navajo speaker who’s fluent and who understands science and can explain the science to the general public.” Having input from Navajo Nation members allows the Diné College team to understand the relationship between the Navajo people and their environment, and to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge and cultural guidance into remediation activities. Together, the Navajo community and Diné College faculty have come up with a variety of courses of action to address the risks of abandoned mines and uranium transport sites. “On the Navajo reservation, the traditional ecological understanding of the interaction between the people and the animals, ecology, and geology—the rocks, the uranium—is an important consideration. So there’s a number of suggestions [for] what the local people want to do about the mines,” Dr. Robinson said. Dr. Robinson’s current U.S. EPA grant is focused on assisting U.S. EPA and training Navajo students in cleaning up and reclaiming contaminated areas in Cove, Arizona, where abandoned uranium mines and truck stops where uranium ore was transported pose an environmental health risk to current residents. For the past 8 years, Dr. Robinson’s team has collected and analyzed samples from soil, water, plants, and most recently, livestock tissue. “A general finding is the areas are not as polluted as we anticipated,” he stated. “There are some exceedances of U.S. EPA standards for uranium, but it’s not huge.” Dr. Robinson explained that these findings are especially important to ranchers who raise sheep, goats, and cattle on formerly mined areas. “When ranchers take their animals to market and the buyers find out that they’re from Cove, they don’t want to buy their animals [because] they think that the animals are contaminated,” he said. “So, our study is important to tell the chapter and the ranchers and the public that no, actually the animals are just fine.” This study will conclude in December 2022, at which point Dr. Robinson’s team will be able to determine the level of uranium contamination of livestock tissue. Other areas of the reservation, however, have significantly higher levels of contamination. Dr. Robinson explained that in some cases, it is di¡cult to obtain U.S. EPA funding for remediation because these areas are not su¡ciently populated to meet U.S. EPA standards. “The federal designation for toxic areas is based on a certain population level and because we’re so rural, a lot of highly polluted areas do not meet the standards, so we have to go through other sources for financing the cleanup,” he explained. Despite these challenges, Dr. Robinson’s team, in conjunction with other scientists working on the same projects, has made substantial progress in reclaiming contaminated land throughout the Navajo Nation over the course of the grants. By training student interns in environmental assessment and brownfield remediation methods, the Diné College summer internship program ensures that future generations of environmental health professionals will be equipped with the tools and knowledge to protect the health of the Navajo community. According to Dr. Robinson, the students find the training valuable and enjoyable, and many return to the internship program for a second or third summer. Dr. Robinson believes that academic institutions are generally interested in working with communities to implement environmental health programs and encourages tribal community members to collaborate with scientists. “People come to me all the time wanting to implement programs and administer grants for environmental health. As a PhD research trained scientist, I know generally how to do research and write grants and teach. And I just say yes,” he stated. “The only thing you need is energy and time and a willingness to do it.” Conclusion Thanks to the dedication of tribal environmental health professionals, these programs will improve the health and well-being of thousands of AI/AN individuals. As the e£ects of climate change and other environmental hazards grow more severe, continuing to provide environmental health services to some of the country’s most vulnerable communities remains essential. Addressing these hazards can reduce health disparities and improve the overall well-being of AI/AN communities. NEHA is committed to amplifying success stories and providing resources for tribal communities seeking to strengthen their environmental health programs. As the Photo 1. Diné College interns participate in a mock brownfield remediation activity. Photo courtesy of Gina Bare, National Environmental Health Association.

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