Environmental Programs preserves, protect natural resources

Jerry Bigfeather, a Cherokee Nation environmental health specialist, swabs a pallet jack handle for the COVID-19 coronavirus on June 12, 2020, at the Food Distribution site in Tahlequah. 

TAHLEQUAH – Under the umbrella of the Natural Resources Office, the Cherokee Nation’s Environmental Programs oversees a dozen grant-funded programs dedicated to the preservation and conservation of air, land, water, animals and plant life.

“We wear a lot of different hats,” said Wayne Isaacs, CN Environmental Programs senior director, one of the largest tribal environmental offices in the United States. “Even people here who work at the tribe and have been here a number of years really don’t realize what all we do.”

The 25-employee Environmental Programs office, Isaacs said, “is kind of like a microcosm” of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“We have a clean air (program), clean water, pesticides, underground storage tank, Superfund, Brownfields, general assistance program through EPA, our indoor air quality program, our lead-based paint program and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance program,” he said “We also have a lead certification program. Any contractor or firm that’s going to do any lead-based paint work within the reservation, they have to be certified through our office, too.”

Isaacs said his office helps support other CN programs by performing NEPA-required environmental reviews.

“We perform those for the housing authority,” he said. “We do those for the water and sanitation when they either put in new lines or expand what they have. We do them for the roads department, and then we also do that work for realty, as well, when they acquire new properties or want to put something in trust. So, those things we do in support of the other programs.”

Environmental Programs can also directly impact CN citizens, Isaacs said.

“We do indoor air quality assessments where we can go in and test for things like mold and radon,” he said. “We also do lead-based paint inspections and energy audits. There are requirements for those programs. They need to meet the definition of low-income as spelled out within the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act. We do have some tribal funds where we’re able to do some of that work for people that don’t qualify. But those are more of the direct services that we do.”

Under the office’s clean water program, various lakes and streams within the CN’s 14-county reservation are monitored.

“We’ve also got air monitors set up at four different sites within the reservation where we’re collecting real-time data each and every day,” Isaacs said. “That goes into state and federal databases.”

For more than a year now, Environmental Programs has also been tasked with sampling for COVID-19.

“When an employee has tested positive, we’ll go in and check their work station to see if there’s any residual contamination, and we have found it in those work sites,” he said. “Those work sites can be disinfected, then we can go back and test again to make sure that all of the COVID material was removed. Obviously that has slowed down a little bit.”

Testing for COVID-19 continues in certain areas, Isaacs said.

“We’re still doing the admin area at the complex and the tag agencies and registration and some of the outlying offices, but not near what we were doing this time last year,” he said.

For information, call 918-453-5009.