Diné College–a first-of-its-kind tribally-controlled college in the Navajo Nation–has been awarded a $380,000 EPA grant to study and clean up abandoned uranium mines in the area. The lingering effects of uranium mining on Navajo Nation lands has been a pressing issue for a long time, and giving resources directly to the community could be a great move towards justice.
First, some background. To fuel the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government mined uranium from Navajo lands. They employed Navajo miners, to whom they downplayed the dangers of radiation, and when the project was finished, they abandoned both the mines and the communities around them. Because uranium-rich dirt mixed with the drinking water and housing materials, everyone was at a higher risk of cancer, and due to a horrifying quirk of workmen’s comp laws, no one could get compensation for radiation poisoning. In the decades since, the EPA has tried to clean these mines up, but they haven’t had a comprehensive enough program to fix it.
And so this most recent grant is good news, but perhaps not good enough. $380,000 is a lot of money, but a 1998 Department of Energy report estimated that a complete cleanup of uranium mines would cost $2.3 billion. Though only a fraction of that is Navajo land, it still seems unlikely that the grant will be enough to definitively solve the problem, to say nothing of providing reparations for the decades of exploitation and mismanagement. Compound that with every federal agency’s uncertain future and there’s more caution than optimism in my cautious optimism.