Athena Talk

Athena Talk, left, before her presentation at Shiprock, New Mexico.

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On a Saturday in late March, Athena Talk found herself standing near the monolithic throat of an ancient volcano in northwest New Mexico.

In contrast to the picturesque scenery, she was at the Shiprock uranium disposal site.

But the NAU undergraduate wasn’t alone. She was surrounded by students from Shonto Preparatory Academy eager to learn more about how the tragic legacy of indiscriminate uranium mining can be redeemed through reprocessing, remediation and regulation.

The former ore processing facility is now a 77-acre gray wound on the landscape, only 600 feet from the San Juan River. Decorated with signs of warning, it encapsulates piles of radioactive waste under a riprap Band-Aid -- is safer to cover and contain this material than try to transport it.

Talk was here for an event put on by the Department of Energy : a Shiprock open house, fun run, and site tour. As part of an internship with The Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at NAU, Talk is dedicated to education outreach regarding uranium, radiation, and radon on the Navajo Nation. She works under the mentorship of Mansel Nelson through the NASA Space Grant to NAU.

“This is a very important issue to the Navajo reservation because we have lost generations of Navajo men due to withheld information about the effects of uranium mining on their health,” Talk said.

She stresses how important it is for people to understand the history and science of uranium’s legacy so that they can better protect themselves, their families, and the earth.

At events like this one, she is putting her academic studies to work for the benefit of the community.

Talk explained that much of the information regarding uranium is passed down through stories and that in schools, many teachers do not have access to curriculum about mining history or remediation science. That’s where Talk steps in.

“I hope that [education] will go beyond (oral) stories and give students and other community members a better, more scientific understanding in an attempt to reduce fear surrounding the topic of uranium and its legacy.”

People can come in contact of uranium, radon, and radiation on the Navajo Nation by simply being near abandoned mines, living in homes built with contaminated material, and by drinking unregulated water. Radon moves through cracks in the ground and holes in foundations, and becomes trapped inside homes.

Homes can easily be tested for radon, and a typical test lasts 2 to 7 days. Test kits can be purchased at hardware stores, but they are offered for free to Navajo residents who live on the reservation. The Navajo Nation EPA Radon Program conducts routine tests at schools and tribal building on the reservation.

It is important to note that no amount of radon is safe, but help is available to fix a radon problem

“The most important thing I want people to know is that there is no need to fear work that is being done with the abandoned mines and the reclaimed mill sites,” Talk said. “Additionally, I want them to know that the federal and tribal governments are doing [their] best to address cleanup of the abandoned mines.”

Taylor Hartman is this year’s NAU-NASA Space Grant science writing intern at the Daily Sun.

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