Navajo Nation to reopen irrigation canal after Gold King mine spill

An irrigation canal that is supplied by the San Juan River will finally see water after Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye authorized its reopening. Photo from Facebook

Some farmers and ranchers on the Navajo Nation will finally be able to supply water to their crops and livestock, more than three weeks after the Gold King Mine spill.

President Russell Begaye authorized the opening of a canal that serves three communities on the New Mexico portion of the reservation, The Farmington Daily-Times reported. The canal will be flushed to ensure a clean supply from the San Juan River.

"You'll have water that's good for irrigation," Begaye said at a meeting on Thursday night, the Daily-Times reported.

The San Juan River was contaminated after a breach at the abandoned Gold King Mine in Colorado unleashed about 3 million gallons of toxic waste into the water system. The drinking water supply was not affected but the tribe closed the river for agricultural, livestock and other uses after the August 5 incident.

The site of the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado. Photo from Facebook

Farmers on the reservation have lost a significant number of crops as a result. Liz Newton, who grows corn, chile and other vegetables to feed her family, lost three acres, the Daily-Times reported.

"It is too late for me," Newton told the paper.

The Environmental Protection Agency has said conditions on the San Juan River have returned to "pre-incident" levels. But tribal leaders have been concerned about the Obama administration's handling of an incident they are calling Yellow Water, a reference to a term used in connection with the toxic legacy of uranium mining on the reservation.

An internal report released on Wednesday said the incident was caused after workers underestimated water pressure at the Gold King Mine. Excavation work caused a "blowout" that resulted in the mine waste flowing into the water system.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez visited the abandoned Gold King Mine in Colorado, just a few days after the August 5 incident and before Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy made it to Colorado. Photo from Facebook

A second batch of documents released on Thursday said the workers had no way of immediately alerting others about the spill due to a lack of cell phone coverage. Radio contact was made at 11:45am, almost an hour after the breach at 10:51am on August 5, and someone left the site at 11:50am to drive to an area with coverage, according to an EPA memorandum dated August 17.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment was formally notified at 12:40pm, the memo stated. It wasn't until two days later that the Navajo Nation was brought into discussions, according to the document.

The apparent lack of communication with the tribe can be traced in part to the EPA's bureaucracy. Colorado falls in Region 8, while New Mexico falls in Region 6.

Region 6 was brought into the picture on August 6, a day after the incident, and was already planning to sample water on the reservation the next day. However, the tribe's headquarters in Arizona fall in Region 9 and it wasn't until August 7 that all three regions and the tribe were communicating, according to the timeline in the memo.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy meets with Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates, far right, President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez and Attorney General Ethel Branch in Shiprock, New Mexico, on August 12, 2015. Photo from Navajo Nation Council / Facebook

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on September 16 in Washington, D.C., to address the impacts of the spill on the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Tribe. Lawmakers in the House are also planning to call hearings.

The spill prompted emergency and disaster declarations in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, in addition to the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Tribe.

Get the Story:
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye OKs resuming irrigation for three chapters (The Farmington Daily Times 8/28)
EPA documents detail frightening Gold King Mine scramble (The Durango Herald 8/28)
Agency releases more Gold King Mine spill documents, photos (The Denver Post 8/28)
Documents: Workers had no way to issue warning after spill (AP 8/27)

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EPA releases internal report into Gold King Mine spill disaster (8/27)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold hearing on EPA mine spill (8/26)
Native Sun News: Tribes respond to toxic spill at abandoned mine (8/25)
Navajo Nation remains cautious after spill impacts water system (8/21)
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)

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