/ Modified aug 12, 2015 5:16 a.m.

Navajo Farmers Lose Irrigation after Mine Waste Spill

Tribal authority has shut down supply for the rest of this season.

Navajo Nation map SPOT
Public domain


By Laurel Morales, Fronteras Desk

The Colorado mine wastewater had made its way through much of the Navajo Nation on Tuesday, leaving lead, arsenic and other metals along the shoreline. The Navajo farming authority has shut down irrigation for the rest of the season because of its concerns over contamination.

Last weekend, Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez attended the Durango community meeting after the EPA accidentally sent 3 million gallons of mine waste down the Animas and San Juan rivers. As he listened to the people airing their frustrations, Nez couldn’t help but recall the suffering caused by more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.

"Welcome to the club," Nez said. "This is what a lot of tribal communities have to go through — many decades even centuries of contamination of drinking water."

The EPA has been involved in cleaning up those sites for the last seven years. And now the Navajo has a new problem — toxic waste and heavy metals settling into the San Juan riverbed.

Farmington Chapter President Chili Yazzie said more than 700 farmers are now watching their crops dry up.

"That’s just absolutely devastating to our agricultural families because many do rely on farming for their livelihoods," Yazzie said.

The EPA has said they will compensate damages. But Yazzie said it’s not just about the money. The Navajo people are intrinsically tied to the land.

"Being very close to the Earth, the water represents the woman spirit, the lifeblood of the Earth," Yazzie said.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency continues to send water to labs to be analyzed.

"It takes times to review and analyze data," McCarthy said. "So I understand people’s frustration, but we have our researchers and scientists working around the clock."

McCarthy said the agency is investigating the incident to ensure it never happens again. The EPA has a long list of abandoned mines to clean up across the West.

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