About 20 students will graduate today from a new program that trains Navajo to help in the cleanup of uranium. The graduation ceremony will be at 6 p.m. at the Gallup Community Service Center.
The program teaches students how to measure and detect radon, one of the toxic products of uranium. They also are trained in a 40-hour hazardous waste and emergency response course, first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and basic job skills.
"A lot of this work is a new type of life for a lot of these folks," said Viola Cooper, national project manager for the Superfund Job Training Initiative.
The initiative is a nationwide program that visits contaminated communities and gives people the skills to find careers in cleaning up hazardous waste.
"The students could be someone from 16 to 60, but someone that wants to change their life around," Cooper said.
More than 100 applicants tried to get into the class offered on the Navajo Nation. Only about 20 were selected for the three-week training, which is preceded by a physical and mental test.
Though the recruitment of Navajo into the cleanup force is new, the effort has been in the works for decades and is expected to continue for years.
"It's a long process. The quicker, the better," said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Russell Begaye, who was glad to hear that fellow Navajo were helping out.
Radioactive material began contaminating the Navajo Nation's land and water during the 1940s, when uranium was in high demand by the federal government.
Many Navajo were employed to mine various sites, one of which was in Shiprock. Many later fell ill, and some said it was related to the job.
"I grew up about a mile from the Shiprock uranium processing plant. My dad worked there," said Duane "Chili" Yazzie, Shiprock Chapter's future president. "He died here about seven or eight years ago. ... Part of his health complications was his work around the uranium ore."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency have teamed since 2007 to clean up sites scattered across the 27,000 square miles of the reservation. Their priorities are uranium-contaminated water sources and structures.
Approximately 30 percent of the Navajo population does not have access to a public drinking water system and may be using unregulated water sources with uranium contamination, according to the EPA.
EPA and Navajo Nation EPA have so far have assessed 683 structures, targeted at least 34 structures and 12 residential yards for remediation as a precautio0n They also rebuilt 14 homes.
Some of the students that graduate tonight will be helping to clean up the sites and homes. Others may choose to work at other sites around the nation.
"This program, it changes people," Cooper said.