U.S. EPA recognizes Navajo Nation for outstanding environmental protection, leadership

June 16, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO, CA, June 16, 2009 -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally recognized the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency (NN EPA) today for their efforts to protect and preserve the environment over the past 30 years...

• 30-year partnership lauded in ceremony at Navajo Nation

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, June 16, 2009 -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally recognized the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency (NN EPA) today for their efforts to protect and preserve the environment over the past 30 years.

The ceremony took place in Window Rock, Ariz., where Navajo Nation leaders met with federal officials to discuss environmental priorities for the Navajo Nation which administers several of the country's largest and most sophisticated tribal environmental programs.

"For over 30 years we have partnered with the Navajo Nation to protect public health and precious natural resources," said Laura Yoshii, acting regional administrator for the EPA's Pacific Southwest region. "The EPA applauds the Navajo Nation EPA not only for their achievements on their land, but for their leadership role in the development of tribal environmental programs nationally. The Navajo Nation continues to build and implement its programs, has enacted seven of its own environmental laws, and set a national precedent for tribal sovereignty and environmental protection."

"Former Navajo Nation elected leaders and managers have provided the foundation for the partnership with U.S. EPA," said Steve Etsitty, Executive Director of the Navajo Nation EPA. "Under President Shirley's guidance the Navajo Nation EPA has truly emerged as a key implementer of environmental regulatory programs, and it will continue to protect the Navajo Nation and the south west United States from unhealthy pollution."

Navajo Nation EPA, four federal agencies and EPA are working together to implement a 5-year plan to address the legacy of over 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. Currently, NN EPA and EPA are working to identify and cleanup mines, assess potentially contaminated structures, and conduct massive outreach efforts to warn residents of potential hazards from unregulated, contaminated wells. Together, the agencies have assessed 113 structures and are in the process of demolishing and excavating 27 radiation-contaminated structures and 10 residential yards.

This year, the NN EPA, the Navajo Department of Water Resources, EPA, and the Indian Health Service are working together to provide safe drinking water to 3,000 people and wastewater infrastructure to 2,500 homes. Over the past 25 years, Navajo homes with access to safe drinking water rose by nearly 20 percent.

The Navajo Nation remains the first and only tribal government that has EPA's authority to implement the federal drinking water program which ensures that the 162 public water systems serving approximately 150,000 people meet federal drinking water requirements. These groundwater supplies are also protected through NN EPA's underground injection control program.

The underground injection control program regulates the construction, operation, permitting and closure of storage and/or disposal wells. In 2008, NN EPA took over the program to protect the tribe's groundwater resources. Together with their prior authorization to oversee public water systems, the Navajo Nation is the first tribe in the nation to implement the two main regulatory programs under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In addition to the underground injection control program, the Navajo Nation also administers protects groundwater resources through their underground storage tank program.

The NN EPA runs the most capable tribal, underground storage tank leak prevention program in the country with two federally credentialed inspectors and a field citation pilot program. Recently, federally credentialed tank inspectors began inspecting the Nation's 125 underground storage tank facilities on behalf of the EPA.

The pilot project allows the two inspectors to write EPA field citations for federal violations and is expected to increase field presence and improve compliance. A hole the size of a pinhead can release 400 gallons of fuel in a year's time, enough to foul millions of gallons of fresh water. To address leaking tanks, both agencies have cleaned up over 100 leaking underground storage tanks since 2004, using a combination of both federal and tribal leaking underground storage tank funds.

The Navajo Nation EPA has been successfully implementing their Title V air permitting program for 5 years, and collecting the permitting fees for 13 major sources. The NN EPA was the first tribe in the nation to achieve authority to implement this program.

Other programs protect and restore Navajo Nation's land and soil. Last year, Navajo Nation Pesticide Program's federally credentialed inspectors conducted 120 federal pesticides inspections and 25 tribal inspections. To address open dumps throughout the Navajo Nation, the EPA has invested $2 million dollars since 1990. To date, 41 open dumps have been closed using federal and Navajo Nation funds.

In February 2008, the Navajo Nation Council passed the Navajo Nation Comprehensive Environmental Response, and Liability Act (Navajo CERCLA) or Superfund modeled after the EPA's program. This is the first tribal Superfund law in the country, and is a huge success for the Navajo Nation, as it gives the Tribe the authority to address hazardous contamination across the Nation.