American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Hazardous Waste


Hazardous waste problems are pervasive in Indian Country. The following examples, selected from a range of locations, are only a few of many that could be discussed. In Alaska, toxic residues are imperiling the integrity of reindeer meat on the Seward Peninsula, and, on the Aleutian Islands, Native people have had to deal with wastes left behind by the U.S. military. The Penobscots in Maine have been contaminated by dioxins created as a by-product of the chlorine bleaching process in making paper in the mills that surround their homeland. In New Mexico, the Isleta Pueblo's water supply, downstream from Albuquerque along the Rio Grande, has been contaminated as well.

The Seward Peninsula of Alaska: Don't Eat the Reindeer

The Seward Peninsula of Alaska has been extensively mined during the last hundred years for cadmium and various lead-bearing ores. These ores are easily absorbed by plants that provide the food eaten by ungulates; the ores then concentrate in the liver, kidney, and muscle tissues. In some cases, health officials have warned local Native peoples to avoid eating reindeer, once a dietary staple. In addition, contamination from weapons testing, accidental pollution, or illegal dumping may have found its way into the lichens of northwestern Alaska, thereby accumulating in reindeer and caribou tissue (University of Alaska at Fairbanks, 2000).

The Native people on the Seward Peninsula live a subsistence lifestyle in which a high percentage of their diet comes from local plants and animals. The incidence of cancer and other diseases appears to be rising among the indigenous people in this region who subsist on contaminated reindeer and other "country food." The people in local villages are particularly concerned that contamination from air pollution, mining operations, and dump sites are concentrating in the tissue of subsistence animals, posing a health risk (University of Alaska at Fairbanks, 2000). The University of Alaska's Reindeer Research Program has detected high levels of cadmium and lead in several species. If similar concentrations were to be found in meat, consumption of 40 to 60 grams of meat per week would exceed the recommended intake rate (University of Alaska at Fairbanks, 2000).

Bombs Away in the Aleutian Islands

Almost six decades after a military base was established to fend off possible Japanese attacks on the United States during World War II, the U.S. Navy in 2001 joined with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove unexploded bombs near an indigenous Aleut community on Adak Island, in the Aleutians, 1,200 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska. The removal of unexploded ordnance will allow the Aleuts to develop industry on the site. During World War II, the U.S. Army established a military presence on the island to counter Japanese forces that briefly occupied Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutians.

The abandoned Army base was designated as a Superfund site in 1994 and closed in 1997. The cleanup is a combined effort by the Navy, the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Aleutian/Pribilof Island Association, the Aleut Native Corporation, and the Adak community. It was a part of a 47,000-acre land exchange between the federal government and the Aleut Corporation that will allow the local Aleut community to develop a fish-processing industry, a fueling facility, and a regional hub for air cargo traffic.

"Addressing unexploded ordnance contamination has stymied cleanups at other sites in the U.S.," said Aleut Corporation commissioner Michele Brown. "We needed to put Adak back to good use, so endless delay was not an option. The project team devoted long hours and ingenuity to identify and remediate risks, resulting in a responsible, effective, environmentally protective decision that allows the Aleut Corporation to move a step closer to creating good jobs for [indigenous] Alaskans" (Navy, 2001).

Organochlorine Contamination and the Penobscots

Rebecca Sockbeson, a Penobscot, described "the devastating impact of dioxins in my community," to international negotiators of a treaty to eliminate or ban the most widespread persistent organic pollutants (Sockbeson, 1999). She said that her nation of nearly 500 people live on an island in the river, close to seven pulp and paper mills.

Dioxins are created as a by-product of the chlorine bleaching process in making paper and are discharged from all seven of these mills. Dioxins, highly potent toxic chemicals that may cause cancer and other health problems, were being poured daily into an adjacent river. Sockbeson said that her people once survived on the fish from this river, but "now we are dying from it." She continued:

Neither dioxin nor cancer is indigenous to the Penobscot people, however they are both pervasive in my tribal community. My people face up to three times the state and national cancer rate, moreover, those that are dying of cancer are dying at younger and younger ages, our reproductive generation. This means that unless you take action to eliminate dioxin and other persistent organic pollutants, there will be no Penobscots living on the island by the end of the next century (Sockbeson, 1999).
The health and survival of Sockbeson's Penob-scot band are also threatened by a choice mothers must make: Should they breast-feed their children (imparting superior nutrition) and thus pass on to them their body burdens of PCBs and dioxins? "With this," she concluded, "I humbly, respectfully and desperately urge you to draft a treaty that insures the existence of the Penobscot and other indigenous peoples who are so disproportionately impacted by dioxin." Such a treaty is required, she said, so "that the breast and spoon we feed our babies with is not filled with cancer, diabetes, learning disabilities, and attention deficit [disorder]" (Sockbeson, 1999).

The Isleta Pueblo Tastes Albuquerque's Effluent

By the late 1980s, people of the Isleta Pueblo, six miles downstream on the Rio Grande River from the Albuquerque metropolitan area, began to experience problems that were outside their historical experience. Their corn and bean crops were stunted and five grandmothers, all from the same neighborhood (and all about the same age) were diagnosed with stomach cancers that killed all of them within a few months.

Political authorities on the reservation pressured the state's Department of Environmental Quality for a toxicological evaluation. The results indicated that Isleta Pueblo's water supply was being contaminated by a number of sources upstream, including a slaughterhouse that was dumping ground-up animal carcasses into the river. The leakage of petroleum waste products also was detected from a wrecking yard, and the city of Albuquerque was found to be dumping raw sewage into the Rio Grande.

Soil tests at Isleta indicated dangerous levels of benzine (a lethal solvent) and nitrates. They soon discovered the cause: As the people of Isleta Pueblo had blessed the ground for spring planting in their annual Winter Dance, Albuquerque's main sewer line had ruptured. According to a report by Paul Vandevelder in Native Americas, "Millions of gallons of raw effluent poured into the river and flowed downstream to Isleta. City officials called to warn the tribe but said there was nothing they could do; it was too late . . . the Rio Grande was percolating with putrid green foam" (Vandevelder, 2001, 43).

The city of Albuquerque later told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that correcting the problems that were ruining Isleta's water would cost $300 million and entail $15 million a year annually in additional operating costs. Isleta's right to enforce water quality standards through the Environmental Protection Agency was upheld by federal courts, a major legal victory for Native American peoples faced with the toll of off-reservation pollution. The case was presented in the context of religious freedom, with sacred ceremonies requiring clean water. In December 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the Tenth Circuit's decision in favor of the Isleta Pueblo, requiring water cleanup by the city of Albuquerque.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
Navy, Environmental Protection Agency to Clean Unexploded Ordinance off Adak Island." 2001. Environment News Service. December 14. Available at: [Accessed December 15, 2001]; Sockbeson, Rebecca. 1999. "Statement by Rebecca Sockbeson for IRATE (Indigenous Resistance Against Tribal Extinction), and IEN (Indigenous Environmental Network)." International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) PCB Working Group. September 8. Available at: Accessed 2003.; University of Alaska at Fairbanks. "Heavy Metal Levels in Reindeer, Caribou, and Plants of the Seward Peninsula." 2000. Current Research Programs, Reindeer Research Program. April. Available at: Accessed January 2, 2007.; Vandevelder, Paul. Spring, 2001. "A Native Sense of Earth." Native Americas 18, no. 1: 42–49.

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