Suzette Brewer
The San Juan River still turns a muddy orange after a heavy rain, as sediments from the Gold King Mine spill are stirred up from the bottom.

Poisoned Waters: Navajo Communities Still Struggle After Mining Disaster

Suzette Brewer

SHIPROCK, New Mexico—On Friday, 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.

RELATED: Navajo Nation Sues EPA Over Gold King Mine Disaster

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.”

Allen and Bertha Etsitty attend a workshop for farmers and ranchers in Shiprock, New Mexico, to get assistance in filing their EPA claims from the Gold King Mine Spill. (Photo: Suzette Brewer)

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.”


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Sammy7's picture
Submitted by Sammy7 on
Kill the Indian save the White man. Save the White man and kill all of life.

WhiteManWanting's picture
Submitted by WhiteManWanting on
A retired geologist from Farmington, NM, Dave Taylor, had a letter to the editor printed in "The Silverton Standard and the Miner" newspaper just one week prior to the Gold King mine disaster. In his letter, he predicted with stunning detail exactly what would happen, though his examples were two nearby mines, just not the Gold King. But the scenario was almost identical to what actually did occur. Silverton, CO, (home to the small newspaper) is where the Gold King mine is located, along with the other two mines that Mr. Taylor discussed in his published letter. The actual letter can be viewed further down in the following article, under the heading, "EPA Plan is Really a 'Superfund Blitzkrieg.'" It is below the main article at: