Five hundred and sixty seven federally recognized Native American tribes will be able to collaborate with K-State to help in decontamination planning for their lands. K-State received a $2 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency in August for this project.
Oral Saulters, project manager at the Center for Hazardous Substance Research, said this is the first project of its kind.
“This is the first nationwide effort to provide this kind of technical assistance to tribal communities to address brownfields,” Saulters said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, brownfields are areas of land in which the use of the land can be “complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.”
Pollution and contamination of tribal lands is a longstanding issue, according to Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, associate professor of history and executive director of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies.
“The problem with a lot of reservations is that they’re dumping grounds for industry,” Lynn-Sherow said.
Lynn-Sherow said this land can be contaminated in a variety of ways and is often because Native people do not have many other choices for income.
“If they’re not close enough to a larger commercial center with a lot of population, then they end up with some pretty bad choices about what they can do with their property to sustain themselves,” Lynn-Sherow said. “Hazardous waste has been one of them.”
Lynn-Sherow said outside of hazardous waste, that land could be used for hydroelectric plants or oil and gas fields.
These contaminations can create brownfields. The EPA grant allows K-State to provide technical assistance to help tribes plan for a decontamination of these lands.
This grant also addresses land usage, Larry Erickson, professor of chemical engineering and director of the Center for Hazardous Substance Research, said.
“We have a lot of places in the world where land is sitting idle because nobody is taking any action to make use of it because there may be past contamination there or people think it may be contaminated, so it just sits there,” Erickson said. “From that standpoint, I think to move forward and make good use of the land that we have in the world is important, especially as population grows.”
Erickson said K-State has a history with this kind of work in this particular field of decontamination.
“Most recently, in the last several years, we’ve been working with brownfields programs and providing technical assistance to communities and people who are working with brownfields issues,” Erickson said.
Saulters said much of what the team will be doing is technical assistance, which means they provide educational resources and communication opportunites for the tribes.
“We’re working in a peer-to-peer model to help tribes work with other tribes, to work with tribal professionals so they can learn the skills, the knowledge, the abilities to do the assessments to determine if the site is contaminated,” Saulters said. “Then if it is, what might be needed in terms of next steps, whether it requires some kind of clean up or remediation.”
Because tribal nations are sovereign and represent themselves entirely, Lynn-Sherow said once the information and resources are provided, tribes decide if and how to utilize them.
“Native people are not behind,” Lynn-Sherow said. “They run big industries, they run really big organizations, they know what they’re doing.”
Lynn-Sherow said funding is what can be a problem in order for some Native communities to have the resources to deal with contaminated areas, which is how this grant can help. Lynn-Sherow also said planning grants like this one are vital.
“Many of these tribal governments don’t have a lot of money, and so they can’t afford the consultants that it would take for them to remediate their brownfields or remediate their other environmental problems,” Lynn-Sherow said.
Both Lynn-Sherow and Saulters referred to the idea of sovereign choice from Native people as “self determination.” This means that the goal is the tribes can then use their own agency to decide how to implement the information and resources provided. Saulters said he is enthusiastic about being part of the project.
“We are very fortunate and very excited to be able to provide this service nationwide,” Saulters said.