Diné College Students Study Uranium Mines

As part of the Kerr-McGee cleanup settlement, Diné College students will study contamination from abandoned uranium mines in the Cove Wash watershed.

Diné College will get $380,000 to study the impact of abandoned uranium mines in a watershed in northeastern Arizona, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It’s part of the EPA’s work to assess and cleanup Tronox, formerly Kerr-McGee, abandoned uranium mine sites stemming from the historic $1 billion settlement reached in 2014 between Kerr-McGee Corp. and Anadarko Corp. to clean up about 50 abandoned uranium mines still saturated with radioactive waste remains from mining operations. The project will take place in the 52-square-mile Cove Wash watershed, which is close to about 50 mines, 29 them once operated by Kerr-McGee, the EPA said.

The cleanup resulting from the Kerr-McGee/Tronox settlement began moving forward late last year.

This is separate from the $600 million settlement reached recently by the Navajo Nation, the United States and two subsidiaries of the mining company Freeport-McMoRan that will clean up 94 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. Overall, there are more than 500 abandoned mines on the Navajo Reservation, and currently cleanup is under way at 200 of them, the EPA said.

Under the Cove Watershed Assessment project, Diné College students and their professors will work to determine how exposed the watershed of tributaries is to the radioactive waste. Working alongside EPA scientists, the students will sample for heavy metal and radiological contamination of streams, unregulated wells and livestock watering areas, the EPA said. They will analyze the impacts of mining in the watershed and impart the information to the community as they collect data from which cleanup and disposal strategies can be developed, the agency said.

“Partnering with Diné College is an excellent way to train future engineers and scientists as they investigate hazardous waste in their community,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in a statement. “The students will gain real world experience by helping us evaluate a Navajo Nation watershed. This work could provide a pathway for students’ careers while addressing the legacy of abandoned uranium mines.”

The plan earned kudos from college officials as well.

“Our Diné students will continue to learn to be scientists by working alongside EPA scientists, gaining invaluable skills and knowledge to assist the affected community and people of Cove, Arizona,” said Perry Charley, Director and Senior Scientist at the Diné College Environmental Institute, in the EPA statement. “Through this grant, there exists a great opportunity to bring together modern technology and traditional wisdom to support Diné people and provide a modern and sustainable life style in a healthy environment, where earth is respected and honored.”