ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The problem of abandoned mine waste grabbed the nation’s attention in August when a blowout sent millions of gallons of heavy-metal contamination into waters in New Mexico and Colorado, turning the Animas and San Juan rivers into a mustard-colored stew.
But the problem of heavy-metal waste leaking from an estimated 161,000 abandoned mines in 13 Western states is a chronic problem that Native American tribes have dealt with for decades. Potential consequences remain difficult to understand and harder to solve.
University of New Mexico researchers have received a $3.5 million federal grant to study the health and environmental consequences of such waste in collaboration with tribal leaders and students, and to educate the next generation of scientists.
The grant will be used to form the Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity Research based at UNM.
The research will focus on the movement of metal contamination through air, water and the food chain, and identify its key sources, said Johnnye Lewis, a professor at the UNM College of Pharmacy and the center’s co-director.
The Gold King Mine spill “is part of a much larger problem,” she said. “These mines are in every mountain range throughout the Western U.S. You can’t just walk away from them and not do some sort of remediation and restoration.”
A key goal of the center will be to offer tribes better tools for studying mine waste and its health effects, and to search for solutions appropriate for Native American communities. The National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities provided the five-year grant.
“The goal is that the scientists here learn a lot more about what kinds risks are of concern,” Lewis said, “and also, how we can partner to do research that both gives tribes the answers they are looking for and does it in a way that is respectful of culture and tradition.”
The center is also intended to improve collaborations with scientists and tribal leaders who are grappling with problems of metal waste from abandoned mines, including an estimated 4,000 abandoned uranium mines across the western U.S.
Research will focus on three tribal communities: the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Arizona, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and the Crow Nation of Montana, Lewis said.
Partners include Montana State University and the University of Washington. The center will also provide workshops with tribal leaders and training opportunities for students at tribal colleges.
“It is really meant for everybody to learn from each other,” she said.