What are the special environmental threats to Native Americans and their lands?
— Amber Wilkie, Jackson Hole, WY
Like other minority and economically disadvantaged groups in the United States, Native Americans struggle disproportionately with environmental problems. Native lands in particular are impacted by the mining, forestry, oil and gas drilling industries, and in recent years have been increasingly targeted for nuclear waste storage. According to David Conrad, executive director of the National Tribal Environmental Council, “some of the biggest pollution sources that affect Native American lands are from federal facilities, usually defense-related, and located on or near tribal lands.”
“Basic necessities such as safe drinking water and sewage treatment are often in short supply on reservations,” says the website of Environmental Health and Safety Online (EHSO). And many of the 565 recognized tribes throughout the U.S. are located in remote areas without municipal landfills. Waste, from both legal and illegal dumping by residents and non-residents alike, can accumulate to levels that pose direct health hazards while polluting waterways and contaminating fish, a staple of many Indian diets.
For example, the abnormally high cancer rates among the Pacific Northwest”s Columbia River Basin tribes can be attributed to the widespread contamination of area salmon and trout. In 2002, researchers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found 92 pollutants—including heavy metals, PCBs, banned pesticides such as DDT, and chemicals produced during chlorine bleaching of paper pulp—in the area”s fish. With tribal members in these areas eating fish at rates greater than six times the national average, they are at especially great risk from such contaminants.
The issue largely boils down to economics. Since 1993, the EPA”s General Assistance Program has helped many tribes nationwide, through grants, to deal with solid waste, groundwater and soil contamination, air quality and other problems. And some tribes have used their newfound wealth from gaming and casinos and other industries to pay for their own environmental protection programs.
But wealthy tribes are the exception, rather than the rule. “Most tribes are running much smaller scale gaming operations and a good deal of the revenue generated is still going back to the initial investors,” says Charlene Dunn, tribal coordinator with the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. “In any case, that doesn’t allow us to abrogate our responsibilities to tribal governments. [The EPA] is still responsible for providing them with adequate environmental protection.”
CONTACTS: National Tribal Environmental Council, (505) 242-2175, www.ntec.org; Environmental Health and Safety Online, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ehso.com; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Tribal Programs, www.epa.gov/indian/programs.htm