Environment | Health | Law | National | Politics

Navajo Nation remains cautious after spill impacts water system

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye inspects a water tank delivered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Photo from Facebook

Members and leaders of the Navajo Nation remain cautious about water quality levels on the reservation, more than two weeks after an environmental catastrophe sent three states and two tribes into disaster mode.

An accidental spill at the abandoned Gold King Mine released about three million gallons of contaminated waste into the Animas River. Tests showed extremely high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury in the water after the August 5 incident but results have since returned to normal in Colorado.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, similar results are being seen along the San Juan River on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation. Tribal leaders, however, are still warning their citizens not to use the water for their crops or their livestock.

They also were extremely upset with the EPA for sending what they said were contaminated water tanks to farmers and ranchers in the Shiprock Chapter House area. President Russell Begaye inspected the tanks himself and found what appeared to be remnants of prior uses -- one tank was even labeled "Filterd Oil."

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye finds residue in a water tank delivered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Photo from Facebook

The incident has prompted renewed attention to environmental conditions on the reservation. Tribal leaders are seizing on the connection and are referring to the spill and the response as Operation Yellow Water, invoking a term used in connection with the toxic legacy of uranium mining.

“It might seem like a simple term but it’s a strategic title to raise awareness in addressing broader issues of contamination on the Navajo Nation, including of our over 500 abandoned uranium mines,” Begaye said on Thursday.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy met with Begaye last week and inspected conditions on the San Juan River. She has accepted responsibility for the spill and has promised to work closely with the tribe to address health, safety and other impacts.

The tribe has seen support from several members of Congress amid the crisis. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) have asked the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on the mine spill.

One of the water tanks delivered by the Environmental Protection Agency was labeled "Filterd Oil." Photo from Facebook

"Through our ongoing conversations with leaders of the Navajo Nation, we understand their dissatisfaction with the EPA's response to the spill, and share their concerns that toxic substances might flow onto their lands and waters," McCain and Udall wrote in a letter on Tuesday.

A larger group of Senators joined the call and asked the Office of Inspector General at the EPA to focus on tribal and state coordination issues as part of an investigation of the spill.

"Although the EPA has taken responsibility for this disaster, the OIG investigation and report will assist in determining the details of the accident, provide a better opportunity to improve future remediation projects, and prevent spills of this nature at other legacy mines across the West," the group of lawmakers, which included Sens. Udall and Martin Heinrich (D) from New Mexico and Sens. Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R) from Colorado, said in their letter to the OIG.

The Navajo Nation, the Southern Ute Tribe, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah all issued disaster declarations after the spill. The Southern Ute Tribe was the first government to take action and was the first to notify the state of New Mexico, the state's top environmental official told Navajo Nation Council on August 10.

Another video from the contaminated "water tanks" that the #EPA delivered to the #Navajo Nation.

Posted by Navajo Nation OPVP Russell Begaye And Jonathan Nez on Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The spill did not impact the public drinking water supply in New Mexico or on the Navajo Nation. The city of Farmington was able to act quickly and prevent its system, which serves communities on the reservation, from any contamination.

The EPA has continued tests of private wells in Colorado. According to La Plata County, only seven samples from 105 wells showed higher than acceptable levels of contaminants.

Related Stories:
Navajo Nation farmers losing crops amid mine spill concerns (8/18)
Leader of EPA visits Navajo Nation after mine spill in Colorado (8/13)
President of Navajo Nation upset with EPA's response to spill (8/12)
Navajo Leader: 'This is an assault on who we are as Dine people' (8/11)
Navajo Nation to sue EPA over release of mine waste into waters (8/10)

Join the Conversation