One Year After Gold King Spill, Navajo Nation Left With Uncertain Future

Originally posted on August 6, 2016


Janene Yazzie of the Little Colorado River Watershed Chapters Association says the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to explain the impact of the Gold King mine wastewater spill on agriculture or ensure a plan for future emergencies.

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Washington.

August 5 marks the one-year anniversary of the infamous Gold King Mine wastewater spill. If you remember, the Environmental Protection Agency was conducting an investigation of the closed Gold King Mine in Colorado. While excavating the site, the EPA spilled 3 million gallons of highly-contaminated toxic water, which included deadly heavy metals such as lead and arsenic into the Cement Creek. Within 24 hours of the spill, the river turned mustard yellow from the oxidation of dissolved iron. The spill affected waterways in states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, as well as the Navajo Nation. The EPA said they took responsibility for the incident, but what retribution have citizens gotten, and is the water safe?

Our guest today says that the Navajo Nation has been living with unsafe toxic water for years pre-dating the spill, and things have gotten worse. Janene Yazzie is a senior planner for the Little Colorado River Watershed Chapters Association, and she joins us now from Arizona. Thanks for being with us, Janene.

JANENE YAZZIE: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So Janene, a year has passed since the spill. The EPA says that they take responsibility. But where have they fallen short?

YAZZIE: Well, they’ve fallen short in a lot of areas. One, it’s one thing to say you take responsibility, but when there is no coordinated effort to help the people who are actually impacted by the spill deal with the impacts of it, the words fall short. And so what the communities and what the residents are looking for is more meaningful action and helping them compensate for the loss of crops which were impacted by the spill, but also to help them build better security in maintaining this river system that’s very important and vital for the local economy.

DESVARIEUX: How much are we talking about, in terms of damage to the local economy?

YAZZIE: I know that our Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture has been trying to put a number on that. There’s been damage to livestock. During the aftermath of the spill a lot of livestock owners were unsure about the safety of the river, and many of them were forced to sell off their livestock because of the uncertainty. And they didn’t want the stigma around the spill, because the communities that were impacted by this are a central food production center for the Navajo Nation.

So the livestock production and the agricultural production was severely impacted, and it led to extreme economic losses for the families that are reliant on these industries?

DESVARIEUX: So what is the response from the EPA? I’m sure you guys have brought these grievances to them. What did they say in response?

YAZZIE: Well, immediately after the spill the EPA representative started circulating a form for compensation. But in that form, once the, once the person filing the complaint, or the claim for compensation, signs it, the language in there then negated any future claims for any future damages. And so that created huge issues and mistrust in the beginning, because people didn’t have enough data and information to be able to calculate what the damage was for the short term or the long term. But two, it prevented people from actually taking advantage of this avenue that was being presented to them because of that uncertainty that that language caused.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about the safety of the water. You mentioned the Navajo Nation as one of the communities that really depend on this water for livestock. Their agriculture, really, is all dependent on this water source.So is the government now saying that the water is safe for consumption, and the use in agricultural–in agriculture? And do you have any proof that what they’re saying is correct?

YAZZIE: I don’t–they’re very careful with their language. So what we are seeing in a lot of, a lot of the public statements that are being made, is that the water, the river has returned to background levels. And that means a couple of different things. One, that means it returns to levels based on the baseline data that the EPA is using. And that data has been collected and that baseline established after this contamination already began and affected the health of the river system.

And then so because it’s back to background levels, it implies that the river is safe for the activities that the communities use the water for, from recreation to agricultural use. But the communities are continuing–they’re still frustrated because of the lack of actual data, and the explanation of what was actually detected in the river, at what levels, and what harm it could have on the agricultural protection in the communities that depend on the river.

DESVARIEUX: Okay, but you’ve conducted your own study. Can you talk about that? What did you find?

YAZZIE: I’m a research assistant for Dr. Karletta Chief, who is the principle investigator for [name inaud.] a collaborative study that is examining the environmental, human, livestock, and agricultural impacts from the Gold King Mine spill. It’s an excellent team of scientists put together by Dr. Chief, consisting of people from the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University, Dine College, and the Navajo Nation.

And what they’ve been doing is collecting environmental samples around the river and also in the canal systems, focusing mostly on water samples and soil cores, as well as collecting biological samples like plant material. They’re collecting a couple of livestock samples, and they’re partnering with the Navajo Nation community health representatives, CHRs is what they’re known as, to collect blood and urine samples from residents near the river.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. So it’s still ongoing, we don’t have any final results yet.

YAZZIE: Yes. We got some preliminary results back from the water and soil testing in the canal. And these were the, these were the areas where residents were particularly worried about, because water was still going through some of these canal systems when the spill came through. At least, that was the suspicion. But what we found there was not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for metals, specifically focusing on lead and arsenic.

So those test results were shared with the community members. But there’s still more testing that needs to be done to really understand how the system was impacted by the Gold King Mine spill.

DESVARIEUX: And just so we’re clear, what did those test results show? The lead and the arsenic levels, what were they at?

YAZZIE: The lead and arsenic levels were well below the safety levels, and what they did find was elevated levels of manganese.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Okay. So moving forward, what is the strategy now, Janene? What do you hope that the EPA will do in light of these findings?

YAZZIE: It’s not just the EPA. I know that there’s a lot of focus on what the EPA did and did not do, and that is a double-edged sword. You know, there’s a huge coordinated federal and state effort to sort of hold the EPA accountable for this, which should be, which should be explored. But it shouldn’t be the only focus. The EPA has been trying to clean up several of the most problematic abandoned mines in the upper tributaries of the San Juan river.

But it’s the communities up there that didn’t want to bring any sort of negative publicity towards their, towards their tourism industries that have resisted the type of cleanup that needs to take place. And so although there are several things that the EPA could do. There’s also several things that state and county governments can do to protect communities from future impacts like this. Major thing is having an emergency plan in place. People often on the reservation did not have the type of emergency response system in place that is necessary to respond in a timely manner to environmental catastrophe like this, but to also ensure that all resources were coordinated. And I think that that, considering that there are over 500,000 abandoned mines in this river system that are known, the best we can do is create, the best step that we can do, is create that emergency response system. And that’s what Dr. Chief is hoping to produce from the study that she’s leading.

DESVARIEUX: All right, Janene. Thank you for joining us, and we hope to have you back when you have your final results in. Thanks again.

YAZZIE: Yes.DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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