George Perkins Marsh Institute

Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities

Background: The Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities is a project to strengthen community-based capabilities in addressing and managing the environmental health impacts of nuclear contamination. Now in its 7th year it has projects at three sites:

  1. Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone communities affected by fallout from nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site;
  2. Cherokee and other Native American communities in the vicinity of the Sequoyah Fuels nuclear fuels facility;
  3. The Village of Paguate in Laguna Pueblo in close proximity to the Jackpile open pit uranium mine.

These Native American communities may have higher health risks because of the unique aspects of their lifestyles that can make them more vunerable to environmental contaminants. This project is part of the Community-Based Hazard Management Program based at the Marsh Institute.

Project Goals: The project goals are the same for all three project sites:

  • building and strengthening long-term community-based environmental health infrastructure;
  • enhancing community knowledge about environmental health issues of concern and improving community capabilities for participating in the management of hazards;
  • conducting community-based research that is integrated with technical research on health impacts of nuclear contamination in each specific community context;
  • building local knowledge capabilities at each site;
  • facilitating community-based planning on possibilities for long term environmental health studies and management activities; and
  • conducting outreach to other Native communities and to environmental health scientists.

Clark University has a further goal of strengthening academic research capabilities for supporting community-based efforts; this goal is shared by our consortium university partners. Because of the substantial differences between the circumstances and the existing infrastructure at the three sites, our specific plans and efforts to meet these goals continue to be quite different for the three projects:

  1. In the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute regions, substantial infrastructure had already been achieved including funding for specific projects on future health study feasibility through a cooperative agreement with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) - National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and on developing educational materials through a grant from ATSDR. The focus of this project has been to further strengthen the infrastructure and community-research efforts particularly in the Southern Paiute communities, and to maintain and strengthen the broad planning efforts that have led to specific project development. The pursuit of new research on community experience with the test site based on the memories of those people present and learning new research methods compatible with community understandings remain important project goals.
  2. In the Sequoyah Fuels region, infrastructure development and capacity building have been the primary concerns. Technical research has been used primarily to support the capacity-building efforts, with the long term goal of establishing a viable base for community-oriented planning and information-gathering. Because considerable progress has been made over the past two years in developing infrastructure, we now anticipate a greater attention on research efforts.
  3. In the Laguna Pueblo region, the small, but active community advisory group has chosen to focus the planning and environmental health efforts on the development of educational materials, their implementation in the local schools, and the use of these as a vehicle for enhancing community understanding and for outreach. This focus will continue, with also a new attention to monitoring the impact of the new Radiation Exposure Compensation Act provisions for uranium miners on this mining community.

Significance: Serious and extensive community-based efforts in environmental health research, education, and planning are still something of a novelty. Each of the following can be significant: their contribution to the communities themselves, their contributions to research and educational development, and their role as a model for other communities. All three projects represent unique efforts within the communities to develop informed community voices which can actively contribute to environmental health planning. In the great basin region, the NCAC has served to unite many small widely dispersed communities who share concerns about their experience with nuclear weapons testing and contamination. It has organized educational and major research activities for these communities and has created an infrastructure which can respond directly to public concerns. In Oklahoma the NRMNC project has provided the principal opportunity for community participation in the Sequoyah Fuels decommissioning process. And at Laguna, community members have been able to see their environmental history expressed in a school curriculum. The research in the vicinity of the Nevada Test Site has uncovered substantial gaps in the DOE/CDC dose reconstruction efforts as shown in project publications (see list), and in the cooperative creation with CDC of an extensive follow up effort; the work provides a clear illustration that community-based research provides an effective, and often the only approach to obtaining key information for environmental health planning. . All three programs have been widely discussed as models for what communities can achieve and for the difficulties that have to be overcome. Publication of community-based research is a particular challenge, because it is necessary to meet concerns from both communities and the research establishment. Publication is, however, important if community work is to influence the knowledge base used in environmental health decision-making. The NRMNC project has already created technical publications and has available the infrastructure to manage more; we expect significant further publication in the pipeline across the next two years. The other projects have considerable experience developing community informational material, but have not yet had technical publications. Exploring possibilities with their university advisors is on the agenda for next year.

One new development, the passage of the new Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) amendments may have major impacts on the Laguna and NRMNC communities. As is suggested by the Navajo experience over the past decade, such impacts can have both harmful and beneficial aspects. An important lesson from that experience is that community-based monitoring of the implementation of the act from the beginning is important.

Project Management:

Clark University: Rob Goble, PI; Octavia Taylor, Project Manager; Abel Russ, Research Associate; Research Assistants Casey Burns and Jessica Cook;

Tufts University: Doug Brugge, Consultant; Yvette Mitchell, Research Assistant;

Oklahoma State University: Will Focht, Carlile Community Council (CCC), Oklahoma, for the Sequoya Fuels project: Pat Ballard; Jokay Dowell;

Native Community Action Committee for the Nevada Test Site project Ian Zabarte, President; Corrina Bow, Vice President; Virginia Sanchez, Secretary; Margene Bullcreek, Treasurer; Patricia George, Executive Director; Peter Ford

Ely Health Center Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment, New Mexico Al Waconda, President; Manuel Pino, Vice President; Philip Sittnick, Treasurer/Secretary