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Navajo Nation president visits Gold Mine toxic spill

'This is an assault on who we are as Dine people'


Last updated 9/10/2015 at 3:25pm

Jerry McBride, Durango Herald

A toxic spill from the abandoned King gold mine flowed into the Colorado River seriously affected people living along the river system including several Native American nations, especially the Navajo Nation.

DURANGO, CO-A top New Mexico official vowed to support the Navajo Nation in litigation against the Obama administration as questions mounted amid a multiple state and tribal environmental catastrophe.

At an occasionally emotional session of the Navajo Nation Council, delegates complained that they still haven't been formally notified by the Environmental Protection Agency about the spill at the abandoned Mine in mid-August. More than three million tons of waste entered the water system as the states of New Mexico and Colorado, along with the tribe, formally declared emergencies.

But no one from the EPA showed up at tribal headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona, to explain the situation. A potential call-in via Skype didn't pan out as federal officials instead were attempting to meet with Vice President Jonathan Nez to discuss an incident that has drawn national attention.

The spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado prompted a release of orange-colored waste into the river system. As the waste continues to head downstream, the color is dissipating but tribal citizens are being warned that the lack of a visible threat does not mean the water is safe to use.

"This is an assault on who we are as Dine people," said council delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty. "They have taken away our ability to grow our own food."

"This is an assault, not just on an economic level, but on on a very emotional, spiritual identity level," Crotty added.

The frustrations were shared by officials from New Mexico who attended the session. Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn said he was first notified of the spill not by the federal government but by the Southern Ute Tribe in Colorado.

"I am not afraid to stand up to EPA," Flynn told the council as he indicated he he was willing to support the tribe's litigation or even his own case.

Since the August 5 spill, the tribe has warned citizens not to allow livestock to drink from the San Juan River, enter the river or otherwise use the water from the river due to concerns about extremely dangerous levels of arsenic, metals and other toxins from the mine waste. The drinking water supply in the area, though, has not been affected.

"I'm here to assure you that the Farmington water supply is safe," said Terry Page, the chief of the fire department in a city whose system serves several communities on and near the reservation.

At the same time, officials emphasized the need to plan. The city has a 90-day supply of water, Page said, so it is preparing to look for other sources to avoid any contamination from the spill.

The orange-colored waste that flooded through the river system and was pictured in widespread media coverage has begun to dissipate. But that doesn't mean the water can be used for any purpose, tribal leaders were told.

"The stuff we have to worry about we can't see," said Jos Lesscher, also with the Farmington fire department, referring to extremely high levels of chemicals that have been detected in the water since the incident.

The EPA has released data about the spill and has assigned a cleanup team. Officials also say they are working closely with the Navajo Nation, the Southern Ute Tribe and the affected states on the emergency response.

"We will overcome this tragedy," Navajo President Russell Begaye said after visiting the site.

As the spill travels through the Navajo Nation, it's expected to reach Lake Powell, a major tourism and recreation area further down the river in Utah and Arizona, by tomorrow evening. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is warning people not to swim in the water, drink it or engage in any recreational activities.

The Gold King Mine is located San Juan County. The waste was being held being some debris before it was accidentally released into the Animas River, which feeds into the San Juan River. Both are a part of the larger Colorado River System, where Lake Powell lies further west.


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