Poisoned waters: Navajo communities still struggle after mining disaster

The Animas River ran yellow with toxin-tainted wastewater that was accidentally released from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, in August 2015. The EPA has declared the area a Superfund site. Photo/Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department via Reuters

The Animas River ran yellow with toxin-tainted wastewater that was accidentally released from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, in August 2015. The EPA has declared the area a Superfund site. Photo/Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department via Reuters

SHIPROCK, New Mexico — Last month, as the Obama administration temporarily halted construction of the Dakota Access pipeline due to concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, another water-related human tragedy continued to unfold within the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.

A year after the Gold King Mine spill that turned the San Juan River bright orange with millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, Navajo families continue to struggle against the ongoing, catastrophic effects on their water supply that threaten both their health and the economic stability of an already fragile community. On a daily basis, tribal members along the San Juan River say, they are still confronting the environmental, agricultural, health and spiritual fallout from the disaster that has pushed some to the brink of despair and left many others teetering on poverty.

In August 2015, more than three million gallons of toxic acid sludge and heavy metals, including lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, arsenic and dozens of other dangerous contaminants, was released into the Animus River at its headwaters in Silverton, Colorado, the largest tributary to the San Juan River.

Home to Shiprock, the most populous community in the Navajo Nation, the San Juan supplies water to nearly 1,500 farms and 1,200 ranches that have been devastated in the wake of what the Navajo Nation contends was “a preventable tragedy.”

The disaster, which resulted from abandoned and poorly maintained mines, has left many tribal members depressed and fearful, saying they don’t trust that the waterways are safe for them, their crops or their livestock. This leaves hundreds of farmers and ranchers without the means to earn a living in one of the poorest regions in the United States.

Meanwhile, Navajo leaders say their communities situated along the river have been “torn apart” over whether to use the water from the San Juan for their irrigation canals, livestock and ceremonial purposes. They have been left stranded, the leaders say, with no clear answers or assurances that the river upon which they have lived and survived for thousands of years will ever be restored.

“It’s hard to even gauge the scale and significance of what the Gold King spill has done to our communities,” Shiprock Chapter president Duane Yazzie told Indian Country Today Media Network. “They began mining in the 1870s, so the net effect in the last 150 years is that these mining companies can inflict any damage they want without any liability whatsoever. Congress, who has the authority to fix this, has been asked to do so for nearly a century, but they won’t. And yet we’re left to clean up the mess.”

Experts agree that there are hundreds of abandoned mines in and around Silverton, Colorado, many of which interconnect and flow into the headwaters of the Animus River—which feeds into the San Juan and directly into the tribe’s irrigation canals. For decades, said Yazzie, it was public knowledge that the mines were being improperly managed with bulwarks that had been poorly conceived and constructed, causing a massive buildup of water pressure within the mines.

When subcontractors went in to do maintenance, the mine blew out a massive cocktail of toxic water that polluted rivers and waterways for dozens of communities downstream. The tribe, however, maintains that its communities are particularly vulnerable and the most at-risk because of their unique cultural, historical, agricultural, geographic and economic dependence on the San Juan River.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conceded responsibility, the Navajo Nation says the agency’s response has been “slow and inadequate.” They say the mine owners continue to squabble and engage in finger-pointing and blame-shifting after one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

The ensuing domino effect of the spill has led to a bitter legal imbroglio involving the Navajo Nation, New Mexico, Colorado, the mine owners and the EPA. Subsequently, New Mexico has sued Colorado, for example, and both states have sued the EPA.

The Navajo Nation, however, infuriated by the EPA for its “reckless negligence” and its unwillingness to reimburse the tribe for the more than $2 million incurred in costs related to the catastrophe, sued the agency along with the mine owners in August. In its petition, the tribe alleges that, collectively, “Defendants failed at virtually every step, in most instances advancing their own interests,” and were negligent in their maintenance of mines that were “known and substantial risks.” The EPA did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The Navajo Nation also named Gold King Mines, Sunnyside Gold, Kinross Gold, Harrison Western, and Environmental Restoration in the lawsuit in seeking redress for the enormous amount of economic, agricultural and cultural damage done to the Navajo communities who rely on the San Juan River for their entire way of life. The 48-page petition alleges that the EPA, its subcontractor and the mine owners “consistently acted improperly, shirked responsibility, and failed to fulfill their moral and legal obligations… [and] must be held accountable for the harms caused to the San Juan River, the Nation, and to the Navajo people.”

The damage to the Navajo communities that depend on the San Juan River, Yazzie concurs, has become incalculable.

“Indians have been expendable for a long time, it doesn’t matter what damage we’re subjected to,” said Yazzie, a hint of anger flashing in his eyes. “Our people are torn [about using the water], but what choice do we have? Just like the people from Flint, Michigan, it’s a disaster, but what choice do they have?

“The Gold King spill is so massive that we don’t even know if it’s possible to clean up.”

“Something Happened to the Water”

Allen and Bertha Etsitty were caught off guard. On August 7, 2015, two full days after the spill, the Etsittys wer one their way to Shiprock when they heard over the Navajo radio station, KTNN, that “something had happened to the water.”

The Etsittys, who have been married for nearly 50 years, are retired and live on Social Security. At approximately 19 acres, theirs is one of the largest family farms on the Navajo Reservation—the income from which they use to survive throughout the year.

“We’ve been farming ever since we got married,” said Allen.

“Our parents and grandparents were farmers, too,” Bertha said, as Allen nodded. “We learned to farm from them. The river is sacred for us, it was here ever since we were kids. The river is so important to us, and it provides the food we need.”

Later that day, they received a call from Martin Duncan, president of the San Juan Dineh Water Users, informing them that there had been a toxic mine spill in Colorado and that the tribe would be shutting off the main gate to the irrigation canals. That night, the Etsittys, who are in their 70s, set up camp in their fields with their son, Huron, as the three of them worked around the clock to irrigate their crops with what clean water was left before the main gate was closed.

“We flooded the fields,” said Allen. “We did everything we could do.”

Over the next several weeks, the Etsittys loaded their vehicles with 325 gallon water tanks and drove back and forth nearly 100 miles a day to get water from the tanks that had been set up by the tribe in Shiprock. All told, the elderly couple hauled more than 60,000 gallons of water in a desperate attempt to save their crops.

“We only had our regular vehicles, which aren’t built for that kind of thing,” said Allen. “We went through brakes, drums, pads, transmissions, everything, trying to keep our fields watered and save what we could.”

But it was not to be. As time dragged on and the growing season stalled, the Etsittys could only watch as their crops withered away—along with their income at fall harvest.

“Our corn didn’t even make it past the tassels. We only produced about one-quarter of what we normally grow,” Allen said, adjusting the cap on his head. “It hit us hard.”

“Our corn pollen is sacred to us for prayers and offerings,” Bertha said. “It was a loss to our traditional medicine men. Everybody was looking for corn pollen this year, and we didn’t have any.”

Allen says that prior to the disaster, they planted every square inch of their acreage with crops that included several varieties of traditional Navajo corns, squash, watermelons, cantaloupe, Navajo winter melons, and a wide variety of vegetables and fruit trees. This year, they said they did not plant the same volume because of the stigma that is now associated with crops grown with potentially contaminated water. As a result, people are buying their produce elsewhere.

“People used to come from all over the rez to buy our corn,” she said. “But now we can’t grow everything we normally would because people might not buy it, so we just planted what we could.”

Additionally, the Etsittys had to give away their pigs and sell all of their sheep, livestock and horses because they simply did not have the food and water to maintain them.

“This has been stressful for everyone here,” said Bertha, with a tired smile. “This has been very stressful for us, but we do the best we can. This River is so important to us because we need that water. But with this contamination people don’t really trust the water anymore. My grandchildren ask, ‘Grandma, where are the peaches? Where are the squash?’ We don’t have any.”

“The Dark Legacy of Mining”

Since the early 1990s, the residents of Silverton, Colorado, which had based its tourism on its historical ties to the mining industry, had vigorously rejected EPA efforts to list the area as a “Superfund site,” according to the Associated Press. Fearful that such a designation would impact the town’s tourism, Silverton and San Juan County fought federal funding and assistance, even though it would have allowed mitigation for the clean-up of toxic acid leakage and hundreds of other contaminants in what has been described as one of the “worst clusters of toxic mines” in the country.

In the subsequent decades, however, water pressure behind the cheap, poorly constructed bulkheads put in place by the now-defunct mining companies continued to build—until they inevitably burst open last year, creating an unprecedented environmental disaster. In February of this year, after national outcry over the spill, the city of Silverton and San Juan County reversed their position and asked the state of Colorado to declare the area a “disaster zone” to seek federal money for clean up.

On September 7, the EPA officially announced that Silverton will become a Superfund site under the official name of “Bonita Peak Mining District.”

Even so, the tribe continues to suffer. Last month, the Navajo Nation Attorney General’s office hosted a workshop at the Shiprock Chapter House for local farmers and ranchers to assist them with filing their claims with the EPA. One by one, tribal members filed in and quietly took their seats in the small auditorium, hoping to get answers, legal advice—anything that might help them navigate the complicated, bureaucratic maze of a government that they feel has let them down too many times to count. The exhaustion and weariness from a year-long struggle to survive was palpable.

Ethel Branch, the attorney general for the Navajo Nation, had driven up from Window Rock to facilitate the workshop. Dressed in jeans and boots, Branch introduced herself to the small audience in Navajo. In English, she then explained that the tribe was offering this assistance out of recognition that many tribal members have no legal experience or representation and needed help with filing their claims.

Branch, who was born in Tuba City and grew up in Leupp, is a Harvard-trained lawyer and is barred in the Navajo Nation, Arizona, Oregon and Washington State. The suit against the EPA and the other defendants, she said, goes far beyond financial compensation.

“At bottom, the purpose of the litigation is to make the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people whole, to clean up our river, to restore our river to its role as a life giver and protector, and to shield us from the ongoing threat of future upstream sediment suspension and hard rock mine drainage and bursts,” Branch told ICTMN. “Our farmers and ranchers deserve to be able to continue pursuing their livelihoods undisturbed―livelihoods that trace us to our ancestors, going back to time immemorial. Our people also deserve to have the food, water and financial security they enjoyed prior to the spill.”

To that end, she says the tribe has suffered tolls on their mental, physical and spiritual health from which it will be difficult to recover. Gold King, she said, was yet another in a long list of environmental incursions on the Navajo people.

“We also want to send a strong message that the Navajo Nation is not a National Sacrifice Area,” Branch said. “Assaults on our land won’t go ignored, regardless of who commits them. This is our homeland—our sacred space—and our people will not leave it. Whatever happens to the land happens to us as a people. In the past the federal government has paid no heed to our timeless connection to our land. It has left it peppered with over 500 abandoned uranium mines and mills that continue to poison our land, our water, and our people. This is unacceptable and must stop. The filing of this lawsuit is our line in the sand saying that we will hold people accountable for their violations on Navajo land and of Navajo people.”

Branch echoes the sentiments of many tribal communities across the country who continue to suffer the deleterious effects of mining and other forms of resource extraction on their water sources and lands. Tribal scientists and environmental experts say that the primary difference between tribes and their non-Indian neighbors is that they are culturally, spiritually, historically, legally and physically connected to their lands and can be “sitting ducks” for ecological disasters.

Karletta Chief is an assistant professor and assistant specialist in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona at Tucson. Chief, a member of the Navajo Nation from Black Mesa, became a co-principal investigator of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to examine the exposures and risk perceptions following the Gold King Mine spill.

“It’s devastating to see the San Juan contaminated knowing all the ways our people use it,” says Chief, a graduate of Stanford University. “It just breaks my heart to hear how deeply wounded they are from the spill, not just financially but also spiritually and emotionally. It has definitely fueled me and driven me to do this work on behalf of our people.”

As a part of her NIH research, Chief has taken thousands of samples from the Navajo communities along the San Juan, including water from the river and soil from the banks and fields, as well as tap water and food, measuring varying river flows and testing for contaminants—chiefly, arsenic and lead. Additionally, she and her team of researchers have been conducting focus groups, as well as house-to-house interviews to assess the complexity of the impact of the spill on their lives.

In collaboration with the tribe, other investigators have also conducted blood and urine sampling of the Navajo residents to test for arsenic, mercury and heavy metal poisoning, the results of which are not yet completed. Other projects include a dietitian, a bio-statistician, a chemist and a social scientist, all working to establish the full measure of the disaster on the tribe.

“The object was to look at all the ways people might have been exposed and affected,” Chief said. “What we found is that there are 40 different ways that tribal members used the river. So it’s much more nuanced and complex than, say, a hiker, or someone who is using it for recreational purposes. That river is everything to these communities.”

Back in Shiprock, as the EPA claim workshop began to wind down, the simple human impact of the contamination of the San Juan was apparent. Frank John, a rancher who lives in Beclabito, had questions for the lawyers in attendance. He had filed a claim with the EPA last fall, he said, but gotten no response.

“Their lack of response is their response,” came the reply. “If they did not respond, then they have denied your claim.”

The attorney hired by the tribe to assist the attendees encouraged John to refile his claim online. But like many residents in his community, John said he has no internet, does not own a computer, and does not know how to use one, which puts him at a grave disadvantage in the modern era of instant technology.

After the workshop, John told ICTMN that after the spill, he hauled more than 250 gallons of water a day to water his cattle and sheep, to which he is now barely hanging on. He is tired and cannot understand why the EPA has ignored his claim. And he is more than a little suspicious of the federal government and its response to this and other environmental crises on the Navajo Reservation.

“Our fathers worked at the uranium mine—and they’re suffering,” he said. “And we didn’t cause this problem, but we have to live with it. And it’s ruined the river that I used to swim at when I was little, and I don’t go down there anymore.”

He stopped and looked away, wiping tears from his eyes.

“This is my home, and I’m not moving. The river is the most important thing. It’s sacred. It is our life.”

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