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Searching for Uranium in the Copper State

Written by: Nicole Moore

In retrospect, it seems a little funny that three of Dr. Amy Hixon’s graduate students traveled to the Copper State to look for uranium.  But as it turns out, there is quite a bit of uranium in Arizona, and these three students have found it where it shouldn’t be.  With the help of the GLOBES program and the John J. Reilly Center, Teresa Baumer, Nicole Moore, and Meena Said have analyzed soil samples from the Navajo Nation to determine whether the soil was contaminated with uranium.

In 1948, the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) guaranteed a set price for all uranium ore mined in the United States.  The uranium mining boom that followed occurred on the Colorado Plateau, which is in the Four Corners region of the United States.  This area includes much of the Navajo Nation and the Native Americans who reside there were recruited to work in the mines that were operated by private companies without being informed of potential health risks.  However, once the mining boom started to die out because the AEC no longer needed to purchase uranium ore, these private companies abandoned the uranium mines in this region.  As of today, more than 500 abandoned uranium mines are estimated to lie on Navajo land, posing both environmental and health threats to those that live in the region. (Brugge, D.; Goble, R. The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People. Am. J. Public Health 2002, 92.9, 1410-1419.)

One of these abandoned uranium mines, named Claim 28, is located in the Blue Gap-Tachee chapter of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona.  There are 17 Navajo residences within one mile of Claim 28.  As part of a collaborative effort with the Blue Gap-Tachee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, the Southwest Research Information Center, and the University of New Mexico CWE and METALS groups, Teresa, Nicole, and Meena analyzed soil samples from around the mine and found that uranium concentrations were elevated compared to background concentrations.  With the help of Dr. Simonetti, they were also able to determine the age of the uranium in the soil samples and match it to the age of the uranium deposits of the Colorado Plateau, connecting the soil contamination to the uranium deposits that were mined.

In April 2017, Teresa, Meena, and Nicole, along with Dr. Peter Burns, traveled to Arizona to present this research to the people of the Blue Gap-Tachee Chapter of the Navajo Nation as well as the US EPA, Navajo Nation EPA, and the Tachee Uranium Concerns Committee.  The opportunity to step out of the lab and talk to the people being directly affected by this research was a one of a kind, invaluable experience.  The students explained not only the results, but also explained every scientific process and analysis performed in the interest of complete transparency to further the trust that has been garnered between the University of Notre Dame and the Navajo Nation.  From this presentation, many of the Navajo people’s questions were answered and more collaborative projects were established for future work.  

While on this trip, the three graduate students also got to experience much of the natural beauty the southwest has to offer including Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, Shiprock, and Chaco Canyon.  They spent a night in Santa Fe, ate plenty of green chili, and visited the National Nuclear Science and History Museum in Albuquerque.  Probably most exciting, however, was that the students visited Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) and met with many of Dr. Burns colleagues and friends, who were all generous enough to take time out of their days to give tours of labs and talk about the exciting research being conducted at LANL. 

This trip was just the beginning of what is hoped to be a long collaboration with the Navajo Nation.  Dr. Burns and the graduate students would like to explore potential water decontamination systems that could be implemented at Navajo residences to remove uranium from the water supplies.  It is their hope to work with the Navajo Nation to investigate inexpensive and simple decontamination systems to provide safe drinking water until the mine site can be remediated by the US EPA.  Another graduate student, Luke Sadergaski, will be conducting leaching experiments to determine the contaminants that come off the soil in water that is representative of the rain in the area.

Preparing to hike up the mine slop
Teresa (left) and Nicole (right) in front of Claim 28 preparing to hike up the mine slope

With the help of a GLOBES Mini-Grant, Meena and Nicole will be traveling to Paris this August to present this research at the Goldschmidt 2017 conference, the foremost international conference on geochemistry and related subjects.  They will be presenting in a session that focuses on the environmental legacy of metal and coal mining.  They believe that this is the perfect opportunity to engage with scientists and policymakers on an international scale to ensure that situations such as the uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation are never allowed to happen again.