“Water Is Our Life”: How a Mining Disaster Affected the Navajo Nation

Nearly a year ago, Environmental Protection Agency contractors accidentally released 3 million gallons of acid drainage from a Colorado mine, contaminating local rivers with hazardous metals and turning the waterways yellow. Just downstream, residents of the Navajo Nation continue to face threats to their health and livelihood. Wastewater from the Gold King Mine drains into retention ponds to eliminate contamination before it flows into the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado, August 15, 2015. (Photo: Mark Holm / The New York Times)

In the midst of the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, it is not surprising that the World Health Organization recently released a report documenting that the environment is responsible for almost a quarter of deaths and disease in the world.

But this is not news to the Diné (Navajo) people, who believe that all parts of nature — the water, fish, trees and stars — are equal members of society and are so intricately connected that an imbalance in one member may impact another.

“The elders — they were crying because the water was damaged.”

It has been 10 months since 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage were accidentally released from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. This occurred while Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contractors were working with heavy equipment that disturbed loose material around a soil “plug” at the mine entrance, which unexpectedly gave way due to water pressure in the tunnel, resulting in an unstoppable torrent of contaminated water.

The spill contained very high concentrations of hazardous metals, such as lead and arsenic, as well as iron that turned the Animas and San Juanrivers a shocking shade of yellow. Located downstream of the Gold King Mine spill in the Four Corners region is the Navajo Nation, a sovereign nation that is one of the largest Indigenous nations in the United States. Although “Navajo” is part of the nation’s legal name, its members generally prefer to be described as Diné, which means “The People,” rather than as “Navajo,” a word assigned by outsiders that stems from the Tewa word Navahú meaning “large cultivated fields.”

As a team of professors and students from the University of Arizona, we have been working with the Navajo Nation since August 2015 to address concerns regarding the long-term impacts of the Gold King Mine spill through community listening sessions and tribal government meetings as well as collecting environmental samples. Recently, we received a time-sensitive $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to assess short-term exposures and risk perceptions of three affected Diné communities.

Traumatic Effects of the Spill

The daily lives of Diné citizens were impacted by the trauma of seeing the water turn yellow, contributing toward a legacy of mistrust. The spill is particularly impactful for the Diné because sacred stories and songs, such as the origins of their clans, revolve around the confluence of three rivers — the Animas, the San Juan and La Plata.

“Do we use river water to farm and risk forever contamination? We are torn — we need water, but we must also preserve farms for coming generations.”

Mae-Gilene Begay is the director of the community health representatives for the Navajo Division of Health. She and her staff went house to house to spread the word of the contamination of the river to those who do not have electricity or phones. “My staff was telling me it was very emotional when they visited some of these homes,” Begay told Truthout. “The elders — they were crying because the water was damaged … There’s a lot of [emotional] attachment, and a lot of legends that are attached to the river.”

Due to the Gold King Mine spill, Diné farmers were forced to abruptly stop using the river water for irrigation and cease farming activities in the hottest time of the growing season. In an area where farming is the primary livelihood, this sudden change had a devastating impact on the local society and economy.

The Navajo Nation is a sovereign nation made up of 110 tribal government chapters similar to states, which are political entities with presidents and grazing and farming officials that provide local governance. Chapters focus on issues such as community development and subsistence livelihoods, among others, and meetings are often conducted in the Diné language with a large attendance by traditional elders, farmers and ranchers.

While some Navajo chapters elected to resume irrigation after the water was declared safe by environmental regulatory agencies a few weeks later, the Shiprock chapter voted to not turn on their irrigation for a year and forego their fields until questions regarding the safety of using the water were investigated further. Nevertheless, both groups lost entire crops of Indian corn, squash, melons and alfalfa. Chili Yazzie, Shiprock chapter president and farmer, explained: “Our great dilemma is: Do we use river water to farm and risk forever contamination? We are torn — we need water, but we must also preserve farms for coming generations, farming is our life, water is our life, it is our culture, our spiritual way, it is who we are. All we can do is hope and believe in our prayer, we will survive…. again, yes, we shall.”

Inadequate Risk Assessments

Following the spill, the EPA and other agencies developed screening levels to establish the concentration of contaminants in river water or sediment that may require further investigation to protect public health. These “screening levels” are determined by accounting for the possible ways in which people may come into contact with the river, as well as the magnitude and frequency of those contacts.

In the case of the Gold King Mine spill, only recreational exposure scenarios were considered by the EPA (i.e. those of hikers and campers). Yet, this is of little relevance for the Diné, who have lived along the river for hundreds of years and utilize it for more than just agriculture and ranching. They believe the water is sacred, and may drink or immerse themselves in the river after sweat ceremonies or use sediments on their face as part of their spiritual practice. They also gather plants along the riparian corridor for cultural and medicinal uses.

“Why is it that they won’t leave the data in the open? This is not right.”

“The Diné conception of and relationship to the environment and the natural elements of life are strongly linked to the use of core ancient Diné principles and values,” explained Perry Charley, director of the Diné Environmental Institute at Diné College. “From the Diné holistic experience, their lives with the natural environment are guided by the elders’ ancestral teachings and by the overarching philosophy of Sa’ąh Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón. This concept represents the duality of knowledge in the form of male and female that is present in Mother Earth and Father Sky. The sacredness of the water is very strong in Diné society. Water is one of four sacred elements: earth, fire, air and water. These four sacred elements are the most important elements for growth and nourishment of all living things. All healing ceremonies use water in their rites and prayers. It is through these elements the Diné walk in beauty. These elements are embedded in the Diné Fundamental Law and are inseparable, coexist and complement each other. One cannot exist without the other. To disrupt this delicate balance is to disrupt harmony (Hózhójí) and must be restored through intricate ceremonies.”

These interactions with the environment were not considered in the recreational risk assessments, and this resulted in a disproportionate impact to this community based on its unique exposure pathways that were not accounted for.Until risk assessments are conducted that take into account Diné perspectives, it is difficult to determine if the levels of contaminants in the water or sediments continue to pose harm to their health.

The EPA’s message has not been the only one with which the Diné have had to contend. University researchers (including ourselves), Navajo Nation and state agencies and nonprofit organizations have all offered their assistance in collecting, analyzing and interpreting river water and sediment samples.

But it is not always the case that more is better, especially when hard data are not transparent or available, as was revealed at a recent Diné farmers and ranchers meeting that we attended a few months ago. At the meeting, the community was grappling with the time-sensitive decision of whether or not to open the irrigation canals this season. While these monthly meetings tend to gather a modest crowd, this meeting’s discussion of the contaminated water drew in a crowd of more than 100 people. This open forum, which was primarily in the Diné language, allowed members to voice and discuss their concerns. A Navajo farmer said in the Diné language, “Since this spill happened, we have been asking for the data, and no one has come forward [with] it. Only when you really pull it out of them will they give you the data. Why is it that they won’t leave the data in the open? This is not right.”

And the message from the majority?

They are not receiving the data they need. The community keeps agreeing for more samples to be taken, but as the months tick by, their livelihoods plummet and the reported results remain sparse.

The limited data available are bogged down by scientific jargon, with parameters differing between organizations. The community, unsure who to listen to, was asking for a comparison of data in a public forum, which they hoped would reveal a more definitive answer and allow them to make their own decisions about the water safety.

Moving Forward

On March 19, 2016, we partnered with the community-based coalition “Tó Bei Nihi Dziil” to hold a teach-in designed to inform the Diné community about the spill and current projects addressing its impact.

Many experts were present, including sociology professor Rebecca Clausen from Fort Lewis College, who stated that communities impacted by environmental disasters tend to feel a lingering angst. And to this day, the angst is tangible throughout the community. Since neighboring communities have started irrigating already and the arrival of the growing season looms, the community has been feeling pressure to open irrigation sources.

In response to the pending flushing of sediments backed up at the Hogback diversion, community members took action and collected four sediment cores and six water samples, which the president of the Navajo Nation promptly delivered to the University of Arizona the next day. After an intense month of processing, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University project team members presented the data on April 15 at a Shiprock chapter special community meeting focused on San Juan River post-spill data. The Navajo EPA and New Mexico State University also presented their findings that declared that the water was safe for agricultural use. At the meeting that was attended by over 100 citizens, some were glad to finally receive data in the Diné language while others were concerned that some levels did not meet aquatic standards and voiced concerns about the impact to these creatures, which is believed to be a thermometer for health of the river.

Ironically, the Diné’s cautious approach toward the future arises from a respect for the past. A belief of the culture, which has transcended generations, is the need to be a caretaker of the land and heirloom native seeds to ensure the prosperity of future descendants. The Diné have a great admiration for their predecessors because their ancestors thought of them and made decisions to care for their resources so they could have quality land to use. But the farmers and elders of today struggle to maintain the purity of their crops for future farmers and their families, as the financial burden may be too great to delay irrigation much longer.

Even though there are tens of thousands of abandoned mines throughout the United States, the catastrophic Gold King Mine spill has highlighted how little empirical data exist regarding potential community exposures and long-term health impacts after such an event. Given the unfortunate likelihood of future spills, this particular case imparts three key lessons: Scientists and policy makers need to understand the affected community’s unique cultural beliefs, data must be made transparent and entities offering aid must do so collaboratively.

With the understanding that almost a quarter of deaths are caused by the environment, as a larger society, we need to learn from the Diné and embrace our interconnection with the natural world, to guard future generations from experiencing preventable afflictions.

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