Just days after a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crew accidentally released more than three million gallons of mustard-colored wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River, Navajo President Russell Begaye stood on the unstable ground at the site of the breach.
“I looked into this black hole, and yellow water was coming out,” Begaye said on Thursday August 13 when he and Vice President Jonathan Nez sat down for an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.
“It was like orange juice,” he said. “Pure yellow. Like Tang.”
Begaye and a team of Navajo officials, including experts from the tribe’s environmental protection agency, were visiting Gold King Mine, one of at least 500,000 abandoned mines nationwide. The mine, near Silverton, had been inactive since about 1920. There, on August 5, an EPA crew was attempting to pump contaminated liquid out of the abandoned mine by inserting a pipe into debris that blocked the entrance.
The crew underestimated the pressure and volume built up behind the blockage, and when workers removed too much debris the roof ruptured, releasing a plume of toxic waste into Cement Creek, which drains into the Animas River. The polluted waters were carried along the Animas River, through Durango, Colorado, and then flowed into the San Juan River in Farmington, New Mexico, on the morning of Saturday August 8.
By Saturday afternoon that plume had reached the Navajo Nation, a sprawling, 27,000-square-mile reservation that spans portions of three states. Roughly 215 miles of the San Juan River flows across Navajo land, Begaye said, and thousands of residents will feel the impact of the spill.
“We use the river extensively,” he said. “For us it’s not just recreational purposes. Our cattle, our livestock, our medicine people use it. Our farmers rely on it, and it’s a source of drinking water. Our whole economy along the river is based on it.”
By Sunday August 9, Begaye and Nez were standing at the mine, directing staff to take photos and video of the breach and collect samples of soil and water. Those samples will be used in a lawsuit the Nation plans to file against the EPA, claiming the federal agency failed for two decades to address the hazardous site.
Since the 1990s, federal and state agencies have pushed for a Superfund designation for the site, believing it the obvious approach for cleanup. But locals, believing that Superfund status would come with a certain stigma that could dampen tourism, resisted.
The Navajo Nation is preparing to file the lawsuit now, Begaye told ICTMN.
“We have to,” he said. “The EPA knew this area was dangerous. They knew it was a calamity about to happen. There’s so much the EPA could have done but didn’t, and now we’re suffering from it, and we may be suffering from it for decades.”
One week after the spill, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy toured the area and visited the river, which is no longer the bright orange color it was. On Wednesday she met with officials in Colorado, and on Thursday she met privately with Navajo leaders before hosting a press conference on the banks of the river in Farmington, N.M.
“The Animas River … has actually returned back to pre-incident conditions,” she told a crowd of news reporters. “It gives us the sense that we are on a different trajectory than we were before. … The very good news is that we’re seeing that the river is restoring itself.”
McCarthy said the EPA takes “full responsibility” for the spill, and that it has set up a unified command center and is sampling the water and sediments before releasing a statement about health concerns. All of the senior EPA leadership is “on the ground,” she said, and the agency is committed to continue working at “every segment of the river” to determine what needs to be done.
“EPA is in it for the long haul,” she said. “We are taking full responsibility, and over time we’ll take a look at it and have a transparent, independent analysis of what happened and how we make sure it never happens again.”
Although the EPA was in the process of cleaning the Gold King Mine at the time of the breach, it did not cause the initial contamination, McCarthy noted.
“It’s certain that the three million gallons wasn’t EPA’s,” she said. “We need to keep looking at these mines.”
Early tests of the water found that the level of lead was 12,000 times higher than normal. It also contained extremely high levels of arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, zinc, iron and copper. In preliminary statements about contamination and cleanup, the EPA estimated it could take decades to rid the river and its sediments of toxins.
It’s difficult to estimate the number of people affected by the contaminated river, Begaye said, and the toll on human lives—and livelihoods—is just beginning.
“Whatever was inside the mine after years of looking for gold, whatever chemicals they left behind, that’s all in our water now,” he said. “When I go out and talk to community members, they’re weeping.”
For Begaye, who grew up in the small Navajo community of Shiprock, seeing yellow water spew from the rock brought back memories of past traumas. This stark, desert landscape in post World War II era boomed with the uranium industry—which resulted in devastating environmental and health problems for thousands of Navajos.
Uranium, also known as yellow cake, left a legacy of pain on the reservation, Begaye said. Mining companies and federal agencies alike failed to properly address the health concerns, and many sites still have not been cleaned up.
Begaye recalls a uranium spill in the San Juan River when he was a child in the 1960s. After seeing fish floating, lifeless, in the currents, he and some friends jumped into the river to catch them. He didn’t find out until this week that a nearby uranium mill had leaked radioactive material into the river.
“Today, for the first time, I was told there was uranium spillage,” he said. “All those fish died in the river, and no one told us. Today is when I found out that I swam in a radioactive river with all the other children. In this case [Gold King Mine], we will not allow this to happen.”
Begaye has launched a series of incident command posts on the reservation. Called Operation Tó ?itso, or Yellow Water, the posts will serve as hubs for all calls, dispatch services and other resources. These command posts are open in Shiprock, as well as Aneth and Oljato, both in Utah.
Meanwhile, Begaye is urging people to keep themselves and their livestock away from the river until tests are complete, regardless of what the EPA says about short-term water quality.
“We don’t know how long we will have to wait until we have complete certainty that it’s clean,” Begaye said. “We’re sitting here with a lot of uncertainty.”