NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

Search News Center Articles

NMSU chemist works to produce potable water for the Navajo Nation

North of I-40 lies the Four Corners region of the United States and the Navajo Nation, two areas rich in uranium. Shortly after WWII, a demand for uranium prompted the construction of more than 500 mines in that area. After millions of tons of uranium were extracted, the mines were abandoned, leaving behind tailings that are contributing to the toxic uranium seeping into some water wells across the Navajo Nation.

A water well surrounded by water
Years of uranium excavation in mines across the Navajo Nation left some water wells contaminated. Shown here, a contaminated artesian well located at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Shiprock. (Photo by Nick Beltran)

Now, a chemistry professor at New Mexico State University has found a simple solution to clean contaminants from the well water, using natural resources. Antonio Lara, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and former graduate student, Robert Marquez, have discovered that clay pellets will adsorb the uranyl salts from the water. Lara wants to make it into a household application.

"It's a huge social injustice, first of all," Lara said. "But I think we can address it. We can indeed give these people a means of clean drinking water."

Lara's research at NMSU involves the chemistry of natural and synthetic aluminophyllosilicates such as clay. His solution for uranium abatement in the well water is pellets, which are made from dirt mixed with water, air-dried in the sun, and fritted.

He described the process as simple and inexpensive and said the materials used to make the pellets are universally available and accessible.

"Our solution is dirt cheap, literally," Lara said. "And because it's tailings from mining, it's important that all toxic heavy metals, including the uranium, be removed."

With 30 percent of Navajo households not connected to the public water supply, more than 54,000 residents are without potable water, exposing them to bacteria, viruses, uranium and other contaminants found in unregulated water sources like springs and wells.

A recent report showed that 5 percent of the wells tested on the Navajo Nation exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for uranium levels.

Uranium is a heavy metal with low level radiation used to generate nuclear power, military weapons and X-ray machines.

Heavy metal poisoning may increase your risk for certain cancers. Similar to mercury and cadmium, uranium has harmful effects on the renal system, as well as the nervous system and other vital organs. According to Lara, the danger lies in ingesting it.

Lara said that unhealthy individuals with poor nutrition and young children who are still developing are most affected by the poisoning.

The water wells, located at windmill sites, are randomly positioned across the area. Lara said a stopping point for an animal herd was generally where a site was built.

"You could see the next windmill, it was contaminated, but this one wasn't," Lara said. "Which is another problem, where is the contamination occurring?"

With the wells in the area sparsely located and the contamination sporadic, Lara said it isn't feasible for the Navajo to use a reverse osmosis system to clean the water.

"No one person can afford the modern-day technology," Lara said, "It's very energy intensive, it's very expensive and it's not simple. You need somebody with a lot of technological information, but it's not a problem, it's a challenge."

On a recent visit to a trading post on the Navajo Nation, Lara was shocked to see residents filling 55-gallon drums for their livestock even though a sign warned of the contamination.

"There are some wells that really exceed the allowed EPA levels," Lara said. "And at some point they're going to slaughter the animals; this is their livelihood."

Lara said the uranium abatement process is simple. Pellets are placed into a bucket of contaminated water and the absorption takes place over night. He believes the closest area on the Navajo Nation with uncontaminated clay would be ideal for making the absorbent pellets.

"We have proof of concept," Lara said. "We can abate heavy metal poisoning. I have a thesis now that we can remove lead and we know the model for that."

In the lab, Lara said he has also removed cobalt, nickel, copper and dyes used in DNA fragmentation.

He currently has two graduate students who are working to figure out the complete absorption model. Nicholas G. Beltran, a doctoral student in environmental chemistry, and Jaime Geronimo Vela, an economic development doctoral student in the Department of Economics and International Business, are working to implement the technology and be involved with the quality control.

"We would like to establish in my laboratory, methods for showing that indeed the uranium is gone for quality assurance, and to ascertain that EPA safe levels have been attained," Lara said.

Today, the Navajo Nation has a moratorium on the mining, but Lara pointed out that there are mining companies who would like to reestablish uranium excavation on the outer edge of the area.

"This is a good energy," Lara said. "We should explore uranium, but we should do it in a fashion that doesn't hurt the Navajo people.