Left Behind

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

School of Law


Becky Norton and the seven other people living with her empty their waste into sewage pots outside their house "at least twice a day to keep it from stinking," and take it to a landfill every chance they get because their Alaskan Native village of Kivalina has no septic system.

Norton is not alone. Many homes on rural Native American reservations and in Alaskan Native villages lack access to clean water or sanitation, and the 65-year-old Norton lives in one of the only 10 homes in Kivalina with running water.

"We have a very high rate of strep throat, bad colds and other illnesses that come with poor sanitation and lack of access to clean water," she says. "We need more funding. Every time we ask for funding it is never enough."

Nearly 30 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives lived in poverty in 2014 – approximately double the nation's overall poverty rate. And about 7.5 percent of Native American and Alaska Native homes did not have safe drinking water or basic sanitation as of 2013, according to the government's Indian Health Service.

Tribes have spent years lobbying the government for adequate funds to improve impoverished living conditions and to recover from crises such as exposure to water poisoned by uranium and arsenic, but they often have difficulty competing for aid compared with places like Flint, Michigan, which has received extensive media coverage and subsequent aid to solve its lead crisis.

President Barack Obama's 2017 budget proposal does include money to improve the water supply – notably, a $157 million boost to a state infrastructure fund that traditionally includes a 2 percent earmark for tribal projects. The National Congress of American Indians, a tribal advocacy group, has called for that 2 percent allocation for tribes from the EPA-administered Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to be increased to 5 percent.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye says the national attention and resources given to the 100,000 Flint residents marks a "day-and-night difference" compared with the response to mining pollution that in August contaminated water in the San Juan River used by his tribe.

"It indicates to us that we are not a priority," Begaye says. "Maybe it is because we don't have the voting influence that Michigan has. Whatever the factor is, we definitely have been ignored."

Begaye says crops and livestock the Navajo depend on were endangered by acid mine runoff that turned the Animas River bright yellow and flowed into the San Juan River, and his tribe has threatened legal action against the Environmental Protection Agency for its role in contaminating the water.

The EPA's emergency response aid to the Navajo has included $1.1 million in funds to provide hay and water to affected Navajo farmers, and the agency reportedly is making $2 million available for use by the Navajo and Ute tribes – as well as by the states of Utah, New Mexico and Colorado – for long-term monitoring related to the mine pollution. The EPA additionally committed to reimbursing expenses related to the spill, including $116,000 to the Southern Ute tribe in Colorado and $157,000 to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, and had been reviewing additional possibilities for reimbursement.

But Begaye says the Navajo have a "legacy of distrust" with federal agencies, in part because of improper efforts by companies to seal uranium mines on tribal land. The majority of America's uranium mines opened during the early 20th century were dug on tribal land in the Southwest, and the resulting water and soil contamination from those mines is so pervasive it's believed to have contributed to the rise of a unique radiation-related disease among nearby residents called Navajo neuropathy. The disease causes symptoms such as muscle weakness, liver problems and birth defects. It can also be fatal.

EPA spokesman Robert Daguillard says the agency has been coordinating with the Navajo to resolve the radiation exposure, and has worked to secure settlements from mining companies that did not properly seal uranium deposits. Federal agencies since 2008 also have invested more than $100 million into cleanup efforts on the Navajo reservation such as replacing 34 contaminated homes, providing safe drinking water to 1,825 families, cleaning up groundwater at mill sites and conducting urgent cleanup actions at nine mine claims.

The EPA is also working with the Navajo and other agencies to implement a five-year plan to address the uranium pollution, Daguillard says. The plan aims to clean up 46 high-priority mines, replace contaminated homes, provide safe water and conduct health studies.

"Cleaning up these mines will be a massive undertaking," Daguillard says, though "we also have a better understanding of the scope of the remaining problem."

Although the mine pollution has brought more attention to the plight of Native Americans, it is still difficult for reservations in rural areas to compete for limited government funds to develop even basic modern amenities like clean, running water and toilets in their homes, says James Grijalva, a law professor at the University of North Dakota. And more money wouldn't necessarily be the silver bullet.