Carrie Nuva Joseph is a Ph.D. student in the Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences Department of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona. She is the rare researcher whose efforts directly benefit the place she calls home and the people who raised her. Joseph studies inactive uranium mill sites across the country, specifically targeting those located in Native American communities. Her studies are part of a uranium mill site remediation project funded by the Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE manages former mill sites, four of which are located in tribal communities in the Four Corners region, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. More than five hundred abandoned uranium mines remain within the Four Corners region.
Joseph grew up and remains closely tied to her village community, Moenkopi, on Hopi lands in northeast Arizona. Her personal connection to the area has made her aware of its history. During the Cold War era, in the mid-1900s, acid and mechanical leaching processes left behind uranium tailings and a legacy of contaminated regions located in native communities, Joseph explains. Uranium tailings were left uncovered and unregulated until the early 1990s in many locations. Tailings were not defined as a source of radioactive waste, according to the Atomic Energy Commission. They didnt fall under a legal definition of a source material. The Energy Commission insisted that they didnt have jurisdiction over these tailings.
Josephs village of Moenkopi is seven miles downstream from the Tuba City Arizona Disposal Site. Managed by the DOEs Office of Legacy Management, the engineered 50-acre disposal cell confines low-level radioactive tailings accumulated from uranium milling between 1956 and 1966. Uranium ore extracted at the site was used exclusively for atomic energy defense activities of the United States. Active ground water remediation is also part of the strategy to remove the uranium (the primary site contaminant) and other site-related contaminants in compliance with the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978. Within the contaminated region of the aquifer, 37 extraction wells and a network of monitoring wells operate daily. Surface water seeps, associated with the Tuba City site, are present along the cliffs that border the Moenkopi Wash, about 4,000 feet south of the site. The wash continues southeast from there to where it enters the village of Moenkopi.
The Navajo and Hopi residents residing near the site use water from the Moenkopi wash for stock watering and agricultural diversions. Every year we irrigate corn plots, Joseph said. During the planting season direct precipitation, runoff, and water gained from the subsurface flows contribute to the Moenkopi Wash (an intermittent stream) that runs directly through the village. Pumps and man-made canals take the water from the wash into our corn fields.
As Hopi people everything revolves around corn, Joseph added. To maintain our responsibilities as Hopi, our cornfields should never be neglectedour survival and cultural and religious practices depend on this life way. Hopi people will continue to rely on the resources the natural world provides us, for many generations.