Navajo Nation Declares State Of Emergency Over ‘Tragic’ Spill

Jerry McBride / The Durango Herald / AP

NAVAJO NATION — Farmers and ranchers on Navajo land in northwestern New Mexico are preparing to take heavy losses this season as a plume of wastewater laced with toxic chemicals flows south from an abandoned mine in Colorado.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency spilled around 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River. According to the EPA, the incident occurred when a crew hired to pump and treat wastewater inside the abandoned Gold King Mine outside of Durango, Colorado, accidently released a brew of arsenic, cadmium, lead and other heavy metals from a mine tunnel.

As a precautionary measure, the Navajo Nation has asked citizens to keep livestock away from the San Juan River and stop diverting water from the river for crops. That means farmers like Lorenzo Bates are beginning to plan for the worst.

“What is in the water? To what extent are those heavy metals?” said Bates, speaker of the Navajo Nation Council and farmer from Upper Fruitland, New Mexico.

Without access to water from the San Juan, Bates’ alfalfa field can no longer be watered, and he has to give his horses and cattle water from a municipal line, which means his cows are getting skinny.

“Each day that they’re in this pen, even though we’ve got water, they’re still losing weight,” said Bates. “It’s costing me.”

Earlier this week, the Navajo Nation announced it was planning lawsuits against the EPA and owners of the Gold King Mine. And the City of Durango and La Plata County in Colorado, where the spill originated, have declared states of emergency with New Mexico and the Navajo Nation following suit.

“This is a tragic and unfortunate incident, and the EPA is taking responsibility to ensure that it is cleaned up,” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy in a statement earlier today. “The most important thing throughout this is ensuring the health and safety of the residents and visitors near the river. We are committed to helping the people throughout the Four Corners Regions who rely on these rivers for their drinking water, irrigation water and recreation.”

In Farmington, New Mexico, officials are encouraging residents to bring water samples from home to be tested. Ryan Flynn is secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department. He says so far it doesn’t look as if the spill has affected local drinking wells.

“Short term I think we’re going to just focus on the chemistry in the river and how that’s interacting with the contaminants, how the river is influencing groundwater, and that will give us enough to really get people using water again or knowing when it will be safe to do so by treating it,” said Flynn. “Long term, it’s too early to tell.”

Meanwhile, the Gold King Mine continues to leach contaminants into the Animas River, which means Navajo farmers downstream like Bates are stuck waiting on guidance from officials on whether the water is safe to use or not.

“There are farmers all the way down this valley that are impacted,” said Bates.