A legacy of distrust: Residents of the Utah Navajo Strip are worried, skeptical about water quality

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For the Navajo Nation, environmental contamination is nothing new. The toxic legacy of uranium-mining lingers to this day in the form of tainted soils and waters.

SAN JUAN RIVER NEAR BLUFF FOLLOWING GOLD KING MINE SPILL

The San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, on an afternoon in early August following the Gold King Mine spill. Residents of the northern portion of the Navajo Nation depend on the river for watering crops and livestock; many remain skeptical that it is all right to use, despite reassurances from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Photo by Gail Binkly.

So the nation’s response to the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill, which discharged more than 3 million gallons of contaminated wastes into Cement Creek and the Animas River in Colorado, has been skepticism about federal-government claims regarding water quality.

As the Diné learned about the toxic plume traveling along the Animas and into the San Juan River, they voiced worries about how long the water would be tainted, how it would affect their livestock, and whether anyone would want to buy crops irrigated from the river.

Ten days after the spill, the oil-rich Navajo community in Aneth, Utah, called a second meeting at their chapter house. The purpose was to get another U.S. Environmental Protection Agency update on the condition of the San Juan River, which is fed by the Animas and flows through the Navajo Nation 100 yards from the meeting hall.

The small, rural community augments its industrial economy with agriculture. Although farming is less commercially oriented than in neighboring chapters 60 miles to the southwest in Shiprock and Gadii’ahi/To’Koi, the people are dependent on the river for their livestock feed and small family gardens.

“Sheep and cattle are a food source,” said Brenda Brown, Aneth Chapter secretary- treasurer. “The families here are not wealthy enough to own a pumping unit to fill ponds for their livestock, or even able to drill wells. They come to the river to fill the water tanks from the pumping spigot.”

A warning

As business people and residents gathered outside the building before the meeting, news spread that the San Juan County Utah Health Department had decided earlier that morning that the river was safe to use, yet there were no assurances that the U.S. EPA or the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency were in concurrence.

Jeff Rhoedell, Four Corners Business Unit manager with Resolute Oil, told the Free Press, “There are a lot of samples coming out [of the river] and a lot of conflicting information, but who is the ultimate authority? The Navajo Nation President’s office has advised us to wait.”

President Russell Begaye had declared a Navajo Nation state of emergency six days earlier. The public announcement and a precautionary statement posted that day, Aug. 8, on the Aneth Chapter Facebook page carried an ominous message: “As a precautionary measure, [we urge you to] prevent livestock from drinking from the river. Avoid diverting water from the San Juan River. Do not enter the River.”

It followed a posting from the San Juan County Health Department affirming that, “due to the water contamination in the San Juan River … NTUA [Navajo Tribal Utility Authority] has turned off the water pumps to Aneth and Montezuma Creek. The contamination is expected to be in our area Monday, August 10, 2015.”

As the group awaited the U.S. EPA representatives, Resolute community relations specialist Robert Whitehorse told the Free Press that the Navajo Nation as a whole needs time to investigate the situation.

“This is open range. Our horses run free. Our animals eat and drink along the riverbanks, our sheep and cattle. We don’t know who to trust. We have to find out for ourselves. Along the way the animals may die. Even though the water is clean, there will be some contamination settled on the banks and in the bottom.”

Yellow current

The river runs through the Utah Navajo Strip, the northern edge of the Navajo Nation. Unease reigns in all the hamlets built around its course – Aneth, Montezuma Creek, Bluff, Mexican Hat, Halchita, Monument Valley, Oljeto and Page.

The strip is a swath of plentiful natural resources, commonly referred to as part of the “Uranium Belt,” where uranium, coal and rare-metals extraction, transport and milling have resulted in decades of contamination and consequent sickness.

Within 24 hours of learning about the toxic breach at the Colorado mine, the Navajo Department of Emergency Management responded by naming their strategic operation “Tó’ Łitso, Operation Yellow Water,” a name close to that of another massive contamination event spanning decades and still in remediation, “Łitso,” the Navajo word for uranium, meaning “yellow dirt.”

Aneth Chapter Vice President Bill Todachennie opened the Aug. 14 meeting with remarks that reflected the deep rupture of trust in the U.S. EPA, as well as the weak authority of the Navajo Nation EPA. No entity was spared the criticism and pressure, including NTUA, the office of the Navajo President, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Office of Emergency Management.

It was hoped that results of water-quality testing would be available at the meeting, but none had been returned yet. Complicating efforts to contact Navajo agency officials for information was the fact that Aug. 14 was also Navajo Codetalker Day, a holiday for Navajo employees. Official offices remained shut.

“We have no idea who called this meeting,” began Todachennie, “no clue who is presiding. All we have are concerns over the water.

“This morning the water in my shower turned brown on me. Is it safe or not? Sad news comes out of Window Rock and we’re not included. Apparently there’s a big hole around Aneth / Montezuma Creek.

“Yesterday the 11 a.m. radio news was all about someone from Window Rock and talk about the largest Navajo community, Shiprock. Even our own tribal government is playing a game with us. We’re getting upset.”

Although representatives from some key agencies did finally arrive, it was late in the morning when discussions began in earnest.

Pipes and pumps

Dave Luna of the NTUA Red Mesa Sub Office reviewed the facts, background and precautionary measures.

NTUA operates two 300-foot wells here, he told the audience. They’re located away from the river in Montezuma Creek. Both were shut down as soon as NTUA learned of the contamination.

“But now there is a big misunderstanding. People think we take water from the river. We do not. We take water from under the river, through a pipe [to the storage tanks],” he explained, “and our two [other] wells north of Aneth are a separate system. That system is not impacted by the river because they are 8 miles north of the river and 400 feet higher in elevation. There isn’t a chance of contamination in that water.”

After the two Montezuma Creek water tanks were off-line, the company began hauling water to refill them, Luna said.

Even that proved a formidable task. One tank was inaccessible because the water-tanker truck was too big. “We had to use a booster pump to fill the second tank. It stirred up the sediments in the line, discolored the water. We had to flush the lines of sediments,” which is the reason brown water came out of Todachennie’s shower.

Each tank holds a three-and-a-halfday supply. NTUA started hauling water on Wednesday, two days prior to the meeting.

“We will continue to top off the tanks in Montezuma Creek by hauling water as long as it’s needed,” Luna said. “But we need water conservation here, too, commercial customers as well as everyone else – convenience stores, businesses, schools, families. The tanks are presently 75 percent full. By end of the day they will be filled again for the weekend.”

The water is coming from the Ratherford pipe, an NHA neighborhood about three miles south of Montezuma Creek on the other side of the river.

NTUA does its own testing, too, said Luna. “Labs in Fort Defiance are testing the water. First, we took the baseline and then we sample every three days. Tests are also sent to a lab in Wisconsin. It takes five to 10 days for results.”

Questions for Luna focused on the potential contamination of the river banks as heavy metals settle out of the water.

“It may not be safe for 60-100 years,” a man in the audience declared. “Every time the wind blows it will blow the contamination, or a fast current could stir it up again. The horses may get it on their hoofs.”

Luna replied that data is needed, and told a young mother worried about the safety of the water at the Aneth boarding school (located within half a mile of the river) that all NTUA operations must comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Routine sampling is always reported, he told her.

An apology

EPA Region 9 Superfund Division representative David Yogi, thanked the community for the opportunity to give the update. “Let me start with our apology,” he continued. “How much we regret what happened up in Colorado and how I wish we could meet all of you under different circumstances.”

The team from EPA brought a laminated map showing the sampling points in the river. It included five sites on the New Mexico side of the reservation. Those in Utah were located near State Line (New Mexico / Utah / Colorado), Aneth, Montezuma Creek, Sand Island near Bluff, Mexican Hat and Oljeto.

Information about the sampling was not yet available, Yogi explained. “We don’t have the test results, yet the EPA recognizes the impact in everyone’s life and on the livestock. Today we have a system in place to provide water. EPA is working with the Navajo Department of Emergency Services so we can help provide that.” He asked for a list of community needs.

The need for livestock water was the primary concern that day, as well as an explanation about a federal claims form, Reimbursement Form 95, which President Begaye had advised the Diné not to sign, fearing that in doing so the people would be relinquishing their right to reimbursement for future damages. The EPA has said that is not true.

Navajo Nation attorney general Ethel Branch will be looking into how to modify the form to accommodate the deeper impact that may come from the toxic spill in the future, he said in a press release.

Another community member raised concerns about the immediate welfare of the elders. “They don’t speak English. They don’t understand,” he said. “Many of them cannot come to the chapter to find answers, and they may not have a cell phone to call, or internet. We should be calling on them in person and the EPA should contract with interpreters to help, even on the radio stations KRTZ and KTNN. That’s what they enjoy listening to and that’s where the EPA should be to help them understand.”

Another audience member gave a detailed account of how most people “store livestock water in small barrels now that access to the river is closed.

“That’s good for one day, but then they have to do it all over again the next day. Why not give them a big tank, a thousand gallons, right now? Many have no tanks to store the water they’re hauling.”

But good water did come to the Aneth Chapter. According to secretary/treasurer Brown, the local Church of Christ in Montezuma Creek delivered 18 pallets of bottled drinking water to the community during the first days of the emergency and San Juan County, Utah, did the same. NTUA continued service to their individual metered customers, delivering potable water to homes.

During the week following the meeting, Brown told the Free Press the BIA had installed two tanks, one in Aneth and one in Montezuma Creek, both of them filled with water hauled from Navajo Agricultural Products Industries, the giant tribal farming enterprise south of Farmington.

Resolute Oil Company installed another livestock water storage location with a temporary, rented 24,000-gallon tank in Montezuma Creek and began hauling municipal water to it from Blanding, Utah.

Rivers open

Concerns at the Aneth Chapter update meeting mirrored those heard at other chapters. The scrutiny was intense at each meeting, as if the implications of the toxic Gold King plume deepened as it ran the course to Lake Powell. The concerns in the Silverton- Durango area did not reflect the issues raised inside the Navajo Nation.

Durango reopened the Animas River to recreation on Aug. 14. San Juan County, N.M., reopened the Animas and San Juan rivers to irrigation, recreation and pumping into municipal water-treatment plants the next day.

But President Begaye issued no such relief to the 13 impacted chapters. Instead, Navajo residents were advised not to use the river water for livestock or agricultural irrigation. He would wait until the Navajo EPA had obtained results from the soil sampling of the river banks and bottom. Begaye reiterated that he would lift the advisory only after the NNEPA analysis of the data assured that the water is safe.

In the same public statement, Vice President Jonathon Nez explained, “We will wait for the City of Farmington to flush out their system before we open our irrigation systems so that we don’t get any of those contaminants…We don’t want to contaminate the entire Navajo irrigation system.”

The following day the EPA issued a statement saying it was working with the nation to distribute 16,000 gallons of non-potable water to 13 locations for agriculture and livestock use. Hay and alfalfa for livestock feed were also being distributed.

Black particles

But that aid would soon evaporate.

By Aug. 18, the 13 tanks contracted through Triple S Trucking in Farmington had been installed at locations around the larger Shiprock farming community, including Upper Fruitand and Gadii’ahi/ Tokoi, where they became the center of another alleged layer of contamination on the Navajo Nation.

Shiprock Farm Board member Joe Ben, Jr., refused the water in the tanks after he inspected it, alleging the water was malodorous and filmy and that it and/or the tanks were contaminated.

The next day, President Begaye and Attorney General Branch visited two of the tanks in question and filmed a video at one, holding up to the camera a cup of dingy water they said came from the tank. Branch pointed out small black particles floating in it. Begaye pressed them between his fingers, showing how they made an oily smear on his skin. They also both wiped their hands on the tank near the spigot, showing a resulting dark filmy substance allegedly picked up from the tank.

They released the video on Facebook. It went viral. Public outrage followed.

The Farmington Daily Times reported that during a phone interview, Triple S Executive Vice President Jason Sandel explained that the tanks they delivered are being used to hold non-potable water. Sandel said since the mine spill, the company hauled tanks to areas from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to the Navajo Nation, including deliveries to Aztec and Kirtland.

“We’ve been delivering tanks all over the county without complaint,” he said.

In an statement posted later that day, the U.S. EPA explained that they worked to provide alternative agricultural and livestock water for the farmers and ranchers. The water in the tanks came from the Bloomfield utility company and met all applicable federal and state water-quality standards. Additionally, the statement said, the EPA would comply with the tribe’s request to use a water source permitted in the Navajo Nation.

The bigger picture

President Begaye confiscated two of the 13 tanks, promising to investigate the alleged contamination and reiterating that the river is off-limits to the Navajo people.

Nearly a month of restricted access to the river has brought the Navajo ranchers and farmers face to face with the reality of lost crops and the continuing hardship of securing enough water to meet the daily needs of livestock, including horses. On Aug. 20, the president held a public meeting at Phil Hall in Shiprock, where he invited impacted chapter officials, farm-board and grazing-committee members to express their concerns. Most were looking at the long-term prospect of possibly contaminating their fields with sediment deposited on the river banks. Five of the seven San Juan River Chapter officials at the meeting

spoke against opening the river for irrigation. It was enough support for Begaye to request community members to put a resolution before their respective chapters to vote on whether they want to open the river for irrigation.

Shut the ditch

On Aug. 21, Shiprock Chapter members voted 104-0, with 9 abstentions, on a resolution to keep the irrigation ditches closed for one year. Shiprockarea farmers utilize the Hogback pump, which affects Tse Dah K’aan, Shiprock and Gadii’ahi / To’Koi chapters.

Meanwhile, the N.N. EPA reported that initial data from their water samples concurs with data from neighboring jurisdictions, indicating that water from the San Juan River is safe for irrigation purposes.

The U.S. EPA has given initial reports on the soil, but the Navajo Nation will rely on its own EPA for final test results, said the president’s press release. “I’m glad the water samples indicate the water is safe for irrigation use,” said Begaye, “but I remain concerned over the soil and sediment that lines our river bank.

The N.N. EPA was expected to have final soil-sample results at press time.

“The health of our Navajo people will always come first. As such, we must be diligent and cautious in making this decision,” said Vice President Nez.

SAN JUAN RIVER WATER SAMPLING DISCUSSIONS

Linda Reeves, Superfund Division, EPA Region 9 discusses San Juan River water sampling locations with Leonard Lee, past president of the Aneth Chapter, and Jeff Roedell and Roger Atcitty from Resolute Oil Company. Photo by Sonja Horoshko.

Back to basics

The U.S. EPA has deployed more than 210 employees and contractors in response to the spill. Linda Reeves, Superfund Division representative, EPA Region 9, told the Free Press that the EPA uranium clean-up is not impacted by the spill. “There are 523 abandoned uranium mine claims on or near the Navajo Nation. We’re currently working on 83 of them. Of the total, 46 are highest priority, and we’re working on 31 of those. There may be minor scheduling conflicts over the next few weeks due to increased staff deployment, but that is a temporary situation.”

On a more local level, Aneth Chapter is gaining support for people’s needs from local businesses and churches as well as the federal government.

In a telephone interview, Resolute manager Roedell explained that they opened a tank to the community on Thursday, Aug. 20.

“It was really that afternoon that people found out it was available and started using it. As of Sunday evening [Aug. 23] we dispensed 12,000 gallons of water to the community. Use continues to increase, but I haven’t received a recent tally. It appears 10 to 15 community members take advantage of the service each day. The water is sourced from the Blanding municipal water supply and hauled in tankers that only haul clean water, so we haven’t had any issues with dirty water.”

But how long can Resolute provide the water? According to Roedell, the company will fill the tank until the river is re-opened, yet he added the caveat that “if it goes another six months or more we’d have to evaluate the costs and financial feasibility.”

Aneth Vice President Todachennie told the Free Press in a telephone update that the BIA installed a temporary 24,000-gallon tank at the chapter house. “Two 6,000-gallon trucks deliver the water twice a day. About 20 families show up every day. People are loading 100-gallon water tanks, yet, some come back everyday.”

His concern is also the long term, and the broader economic impact. More people are aware of the condition of the river, he explained. “They should be thinking not only about the mineral deposits settling on the banks of the river, but everyone’s use of commercial fertilizers and agricultural chemicals today, in Colorado, New Mexico, here. We should be advocating on behalf of more than just the Navajo people, now.”

Not many chapters have weighed in with resolutions to keep river access shut. Nenahnezad, San Juan and Upper Fruitland, all just a few miles east of Shiprock Chapter, requested, instead, that the president open irrigation to their farms. During a special meeting held with them Aug. 27, Begaye agreed to open the Fruitland Irrigation Canal after it is flushed. Farmers in those three chapters may irrigate as early as Sunday, Aug 30.

Todachennie is unclear about drafting a chapter resolution banning use of the river for a year, as the Shiprock chapter did. Alluding once again to the disregard central Navajo government allegedly shows for the community, Todachennie seems confident when he says they will find their way through the crisis.

“Although we will respect the president’s ban on using the river water, we are basically on our own out here.”

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