Toxic spill causes hardship for the Navajo farmers and ranchers downstream

It's been nearly two weeks since an EPA accident at a defunct Colorado mine fouled rivers in multiple states, and among the hardest hit residents are the Navajos. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports from New Mexico.

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  • Editor’s note:

    We originally reported that the San Juan River flows into Arizona and then enters Lake Powell. In fact, it joins the Colorado River in Utah, then flows into Lake Powell, which straddles the Arizona border. Also, in a map of the Navajo Nation, we incorrectly illustrated the northern border, which more closely follows the San Juan River than our depiction. We regret the errors.


    It's been 12 days since an accident at a defunct Colorado gold mine fouled rivers in three states.

    Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery has an update on the impact the spill has had on Native Americans and others in Northwest New Mexico.


    The sunflowers in Upper Fruitland, New Mexico, are drooping.

  • LORENZO BATES, Speaker, Navajo Nation Council:

    When you look at them now, they're all hanging over because they haven't — they need water.


    On LoRenzo Bates' farm, it's not just sunflowers in trouble. The alfalfa, key for feeding his animals, is stunted.


    This is right now 12 days behind. This hay has to get me through the winter season.


    Bates, the speaker of the Navajo Nation, tallied his losses so far at $1,000 in just one week, no small amount in this poor region. It's all because Bates and thousands of others here couldn't pull water from the San Juan River, which abuts his land. Irrigation ditches were shut down after the mine accident earlier this month 100 miles north in Silverton, Colorado.

    Efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up one mine resulted in a breach at another, the Gold King Mine, which has been inactive since 1923. A three million gallon toxic stew of heavy metals poured downstream, turning the Animas River a shocking yellow.

    The Animas flows south and meets the San Juan in Farmington, New Mexico. Then it snakes north into Utah, where it skirts the upper edge of the Navajo Reservation. Eventually, it turns south into Arizona and ends up in a branch of Lake Powell, a journey of nearly 500 miles.

    Among those hardest-hit are the Navajos, the nation's largest Native American tribe; 300,000 of them are spread out on a reservation larger than 10 states. The chapter in Shiprock, named for its enormous rock outcropping, has issued warnings to its members.

    DUANE "CHILI" YAZZIE, President, Navajo Nation Shiprock Chapter: Stay away from the river. Do not use the river water for anything.


    Chili Yazzie is the chapter president. He's coordinating water deliveries to tribe members.


    There are many livestock owners that rely on the river for water for their livestock. As the local government, we began delivering water to at least those livestock animals.


    An alphabet soup of state, federal and local agencies are working with Navajos and other farmers and ranchers to evaluate the problem and fix it. Public meetings happen nearly every day, where ordinary citizens can take concerns directly to officials.

  • WOMAN:

    I have to say, I want to believe you, but I'm not comfortable with the idea of cleaning a ditch after the season.

  • MARK HAYES, On-Scene Coordinator, Environmental Protection Agency:

    This was not something that was intentionally done.


    Mark Hayes is the on-site coordinator for the EPA.


    This has deeply and greatly impacted a lot of people and put a lot of people at an inconvenience. So you can imagine that — the frustration that comes out of that. So, we still have some concerns out there. And we're not — we're not trying to downplay it or anything like that. But it's definitely a concern, and there's definitely a sense of urgency that we're trying to get this handled.


    The agency, which ordinarily investigates environmental disasters, has taken responsibility for this one.

  • Administrator Gina McCarthy:

  • GINA MCCARTHY, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency:

    This is a tragic incident. I am absolutely, deeply sorry that this ever happened, but I want to make sure that we react positively, and in a way that's credible, and we move this forward.


    But that's not enough for New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, who surveyed the scene last week.

    GOV. SUSANA MARTINEZ (R), New Mexico: Well, we certainly expect the EPA to pay for every bit of the costs for this catastrophe. They caused it. They pay for it.


    The governor has threatened legal action against the EPA, as have Navajo leaders.


    It's a given that folks are going to sue the — the U.S. EPA. So President Obama is going to be the one that's going to end up at some point in time possibly signing a check. The question is, how big is that check going to be?


    Settling ponds are reducing the contamination for now. The Gold King Mine is not unique. There are a half-a-million abandoned mines around the country, more than 20,000 in Colorado alone. And some are leaking dangerous chemicals.

    According to the EPA, a nationwide clean up could cost as much as $50 billion. Back on the San Juan River, the golden hue has dissipated.

  • DENNIS MCQUILLAN, State Scientist, New Mexico:

    What we're doing now is measuring the electrical conductivity, the mineral content of the river water.


    State scientist Dennis McQuillan has run tests comparing river water with water from nearby wells.


    So, remember, it's 474 in the river, so it's going to be stabilizing in just a minute.


    Almost 1,800.


    Almost 1,800. And what this tells us is that this well has groundwater, not river water. This well has not been touched by the contamination in the river. And this is a really good thing.


    That allowed state officials to give an all-clear to resume drinking well water. Saturday night, they began scheduling irrigation and lifted the ban on recreational use of the river.

    But they advised residents to wash with soap after contact with the water and warned against eating any of the fish. But the Navajos, a sovereign nation, haven't lifted their restrictions. And many are worried about the long-term environmental impact of the spill.


    Sometimes, when you look at the river, it seems like normal. But what has settled, but what solids have settled to the bottom of the river?


    Those solids could be roiled up in a heavy storm. Protecting and preserving the river is especially important for the Navajos, who've lived here for more than 600 years, and for whom the land and water have very special meaning.


    The water and the land are very central to our — to our way of life, not only physically, but spiritually. We are in a state of mourning. It's like losing somebody.


    I'm Kathleen McCleery for the PBS NewsHour on the Navajo Reservation in Northwest New Mexico.

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