Animas River Spill Unleashes Potential Disaster on Navajo Nation

Duane "Chili" Yazzie
Duane "Chili" Yazzie
Courtesy of Chili Yazzie

“We’re in the ‘red zone’ right now. Today, tomorrow is probably it,” says Duane "Chili" Yazzie, chapter president of the Shiprock Community on the Navajo Nation Reservation. “We’re about to lose a lot of our crops.”

Two weeks after an accident in an abandoned mine in Colorado caused more than 3 million gallons of toxic, heavy-metal-laden sludge to gush into the Animas River, disaster looms for the northern Navajo Nation.

Thousands of acres of farmland could dry up, and hundreds of families could see their primary source of income disappear.

Many miles of coastline along the San Juan River, a downstream tributary of the Animas, are designated agricultural areas, and many farmers there still are without a reliable source of uncontaminated water for their crops. Though the drinking-water ban was lifted on August 7 because residents receive their water from a reservoir upstream from where the Animas and San Juan rivers meet, the ban on accessing river water for crops and livestock still is in place.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which oversaw the contractor responsible for the spill, has been conducting water-quality tests for days along the hundreds of miles of affected waters and says most areas are at or close to pre-contamination levels. A sediment study from near Shiprock released Tuesday shows that “sample concentrations are trending toward pre-event conditions.”

Photos of river water shortly after the spill on August 6.
Photos of river water shortly after the spill on August 6.
Screenshot/Twitter

But Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has stated that he’s waiting for test results from the Navajo Nation EPA before lifting the ban. (Begaye's office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Yazzie says there also are independent tests being done but that so far he and others have only seen the U.S. EPA’s results: “It’s saying the water is fine, but of course we’re skeptical.”

To prevent a catastrophic crop collapse, the EPA ordered a massive delivery of clean water for farmers to use. The company SSS Trucking was responsible for bringing in 11 16,000-gallon containers and the water to fill them, but when the first farmers lined up Saturday to tap into the supply, what came out of the valve was discolored, had an oily sheen, and smelled like petroleum.

“We were feeling some relief in thinking that we were going to be getting water to our crops,” Yazzie says. “We knew that the farmers up-river, the non-Native farmers, were doing exactly that [and] were having water delivered to water their crops from some of the same contractors that were hired to run the water here.”

He says the company “kept trying to assure people that the water was clean, but if the water comes out smelling like petroleum, you know it’s not certified clean.” (SSS Trucking did not respond to a request for comment.)

Most refused to use the water, though Yazzie relays a story he heard from a local farmer early Tuesday morning. The man said he had used the trucked-in water on his fields, and even now, a day later, it still smells faintly of petroleum and the plants are covered with an oily sheen.

“The hopes of the farmers of actually being able to save some of the precious crops were obliterated in an instant with the tainted water,” Yazzie wrote on Facebook recently. “EPA and SSS Trucking were told to take the water and dump it off Rez, to load up the tanks and get off the Rez . . . Now the Chapter, the Navajo Nation, and [the Bureau of Indian Affairs] are scrambling to secure other sources for water. Crops are getting thirsty; it is reaching critical stage. Pray for rain.”

Locations of EPA water quality tests
Locations of EPA water quality tests
EPA

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There are at least 750 unique land-use permits for farming in Yazzie’s area, but to calculate how many people are affected, he thinks you’d need to multiply that number by at least seven or eight because often multiple generations of the same family work on a farm together.

The EPA, having vowed to compensate people for spill-related damages, spent much of last week distributing paperwork for people to document their losses. But the documents included a tricky waiver that if signed, essentially absolved the EPA from paying out any future claims. Yazzie says a waiver like this is deeply problematic because “we know that a lot of the damage and effects of heavy metals are permanent, [and often] not seen for many, many years," and he adds that the EPA stopped distributing the forms following public outcry.

Still, it's the unknown long-term effects of the spill that really worry him. He wonders what will happen not just to humans and crops but to the wildlife — deer, bears, birds, and even wild horses — that drink the river water. 

He knows that the nature of the media cycle is such that big issues like the Animas River spill may dominate for a week or so before people either lose interest or focus their attention on a new catastrophe.

“There have been a lot of tears shed. It’s very painful situation that our farmers have been placed in. [But] I’m not really paying attention to how people are viewing this on a national basis [or] whether people are losing interest,” he says. "Because it doesn’t really matter if people lose interest — we’re the ones stuck with the problems.”


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