Gold King Mine spill hits Navajo Nation hard

A scene from the Animas River in La Plata County, Colo., after last week's spill.

La Plata County / Courtesy photo

A scene from the Animas River in La Plata County, Colo., shortly after last week’s spill.

While the Colorado governor drank water from the Animas River on Wednesday to demonstrate that conditions are improving, downstream, people on the Navajo Nation continue to deal with the very real effects of an environmental disaster.

With river water still not cleared for use on the Navajo Nation after the EPA accidentally triggered the spill of three million gallons of toxic waste last week, crops are drying up. From the Colorado Springs Gazette:

On the Navajo Nation, some 30,000 acres of crops are in danger without irrigation. Farmers also worry about contaminating their irrigation ditches once the gates are reopened, and ranchers are looking for assurances that livestock won’t be exposed to contaminants each time they wade into the river and kick up sediment while getting a drink.

Navajo farmers are in the middle of alfalfa season and without rain, tribal officials say they will be in trouble. They have been flooding the airwaves and social media with Navajo-language public service announcements to keep people updated.

About 43 percent of people on the Navajo Nation live below the poverty line. Some are dependent on the crops that are now at risk.

The Navajo Times told the story of Earl and Cheryle Yazzie, farmers in Shiprock who will be celebrating their 39th wedding anniversary Oct. 2 and are praying for the river’s healing.

“People see us out here everyday hoeing away in the middle of the day and heat, sunburned,” the newspaper quoted Earl Yazzie as saying. “It is a labor of love.”

Cheryle Yazzie talked about the couple’s plans to “make steamed corn and kneel down bread.”

“Looks like we aren’t gonna have our steamed corn,” the Navajo Times quoted her as saying.

“You know what they say: ‘You never make plans,'” she said.

‘An attack of who we are’

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation’s president and vice president are telling people to not sign EPA compensation forms for damage and injury caused by the spill. From KOB-TV in Albuquerque:

The EPA says that although they have six months to resolve a claim, it “will make every effort” to respond to claims for this particular incident “as soon as possible.”

But Wednesday, Navajo President Russell Begaye sent a directive to cease any promotion of the form, saying it contains “offending language that will waive future claims for individuals that sign the form and preclude [Navajos] from seeking full compensation for injuries suffered from the spill.”

A disclaimer near the bottom of the first page of the form says: “I certify that the amount of claim covers only damages and injuries caused by the incident above and agree to accept said amount in full satisfaction and final settlement of this claim.”

The Navajo Nation directive says that if people sign the form, they forfeit any further compensation for damages suffered beyond the date it is signed, leaving the possibility that people affected years down the road will not receive any further compensation.

Toxic situations are nothing new for Navajos. From Fronteras Desk:

Last weekend, Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez attended the Durango community meeting after the EPA accidentally sent 3 million gallons of mine waste down the Animas and San Juan rivers. As he listened to the people airing their frustrations, Nez couldn’t help but recall the suffering caused by more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.

“Welcome to the club,” Nez said. “This is what a lot of tribal communities have to go through — many decades, even centuries of contamination of drinking water.”

The EPA has been involved in cleaning up those sites for the last seven years. And now the Navajo has a new problem — toxic waste and heavy metals settling into the San Juan riverbed.

Navajo Council Delegate Amber Crotty had harsh words for the federal government in a meeting with tribal and New Mexico officials on Monday, according to the Navajo Times.

“This is sure an attack of who we are as Navajo people,” the newspaper quoted Crotty as saying.

Drinking the water?

Meanwhile, Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday drank water from the Animas River, which days ago was the color of mustard, to, according to the Durango Herald, “make a point.”

But what point? From the newspaper:

The governor and his health department director, however, cautioned that citizens should not be freely drinking from the river, because the water was unsafe for consumption even before the Environmental Protection Agency released an estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater into it.

But the drinking exercise indicated that state officials are more than confident that the river does not pose a toxic risk to humans, as they publicly stated on Tuesday.

Hickenlooper dropped an iodine tablet into his bottle of river water to kill possible giardia and E. coli before he drank it.

Three attorneys general visit area

The attorneys general from New Mexico, Colorado and Utah met in Durango on Wednesday to discuss possible litigation against the EPA, according to the Farmington Daily Times.

N.M. Attorney General Hector Balderas visited communities in San Juan County in New Mexico earlier in the day.

“We are here to ensure the safety and welfare of the citizens of New Mexico,” The Daily Times quoted Balderas as saying. All three states are considering litigation against the EPA.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, meanwhile, has promised to sue for “millions, billions of dollars.”

‘This river… is our lifeline’

The Colorado Springs Gazette was with Navajo officials who visited Gold King Mine in Southwestern Colorado, where the spill occurred, over the weekend. The newspaper painted this picture:

Russell Begaye stared at the yellow water that keeps pouring out of a hole in the side of a Colorado mountain, racing down a slope and dumping heavy metals into rivers critical to survival on the nation’s largest Native American reservation and across the Southwest.

At the Gold King Mine, Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, couldn’t help but see the concerned faces of his people — the farmers who can’t water their corn now, and the ranchers scrambling to keep their cattle, sheep and goats away from the polluted San Juan River.

“We were told that the water was clearing up and getting back to normal,” he said. “This is what EPA was telling us. We wanted to go up there as close as we could to the source. We wanted our people to see the water is still yellow.”

Climbing unannounced past barriers and up the mountain, Begaye and a small contingent of Navajo officials got a closer look over the weekend at the mine blowout sending more than 3 million gallons of water laden with lead, arsenic and other metals into Cement Creek, then down the Animas River and into the San Juan River.

Yellow sludge still poured Wednesday from its source at the mine, 11,300 feet high in the Rockies, where an EPA cleanup crew hastily built a series of four sedimentation ponds by moving small mounds of earth covered in plastic.

The EPA says the ponds are reducing river contamination but not stopping flow into the Animas River and then into the San Juan River, which crosses the Navajo Nation.

“This is a huge issue,” the Gazette quoted Begaye as saying. “This river, the San Juan, is our lifeline, not only in a spiritual sense but also it’s an economic base that sustains the people that live along the river.”

“When EPA is saying to me it’s going to take decades to clean this up, that is how long uncertainty will exist as we drink the water, as we farm the land, as we put our livestock out there near the river,” the newspaper quoted Begaye as saying. “That is just, to me, a disaster of a huge proportion.”

Navajo Nation PSA

Here’s Begaye speaking in Navajo to people on the Navajo Nation about the spill:

This BBSNews article was syndicated from, and written by Heath Haussamen. Read the original article here.