Tó Éí Ííńá (Water is Life): The impact of the Gold Mine Spill on the Navajo Nation

September 2, 2015

In early August approximately 3 million gallons of toxic waste spilled from the Gold King Mine into the Animas River in Colorado, making national headlines. News reports describe the plume of toxic waste as containing lead, arsenic, copper, calcium cadmium, aluminum and other heavy metals. Photos shared over social media showed the river transformed into a bright, almost neon orange color. The spill polluted the San Juan River and the Colorado River, which run through Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Governors from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah declared states of emergency as the plume of toxic waste flowed all the way into Lake Powell.

Although there are hundreds of communities that have been affected by this contamination, the community I am most concerned about is the Diné (or Navajo). I am Diné, my paternal ancestors come from Dinétah (Navajo Nation) and this land is the foundation to our culture and identity. This Nation is among the most vulnerable to climate change, where the people face economic depression, and where access to resources, especially water, is very challenging. Many families in Dinétah live without running water or electricity, yet it is our land that provides big cities in the Southwest with cheap energy via the extraction of oil, gas, and uranium.

Days after the August 5th spill, drinking water and irrigation water was turned off to parts of the Navajo Nation. The impact of this has been extremely heavy for people in the community, especially farmers. In an effort to protect the soil and plant life, famers have not been irrigating and so some have lost their crops. Liz Newton a farmer located in the San Juan Chapter, told the Farmington Daily Times that she tried to save three acres of crops with bottled water, however this was not enough and her crops have withered. Now, Newton and her family must face the upcoming seasons without a harvest. More recently farmers have experienced further injustice. Weeks after the spill occurred, it was confirmed by farmers of the Navajo Nation, President Begaye, and Attorney General Ethel Branch, that water tanks delivered by the EPA were contaminated with oil. This water delivery was meant to provide water for farmers’ livestock. However, after noticing the oil debris farmers have refused to use it, as it would poison their animals and the land. Diné people and the President are outraged as this furthers environmental racism towards the Navajo Nation.

For the Diné water is life or as we say, tó éí ííńá, and therefore these rivers are life. Now this life force has been taken from us, and all we are left is unanswered questions, pending test results, and fear for how we will be affected in the long term.

Fortunately there is some progress being made and Diné people are rising up with fierce resilience and commitment to hold those responsible accountable.

First, the President of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, has announced that he intends to take legal action against the EPA, which has taken full responsibility for this spill. Mr. Begaye has also warned Diné people NOT to use or sign Form 95 for Damage, Injury or Death as a Result of Gold King Mine Release. Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch stated this form “contains offending language that will waive future claims for individuals that sign the form and preclude people from seeking full compensation for injuries suffered from the spill.” In addition the President has brought to attention the General Mining Act of 1872.

This is perhaps one of the most important issues to bring awareness to because it is this Act that has allowed for this spill to happen. And it is this Act that needs to be reviewed and updated so that a spill like this can be prevented. In Colorado alone there are 4,670 abandoned mines just like the Gold King mine that threaten water resources, according to the Colorado office of the Bureau of Land Management. What’s more is that in the U.S. there are 46,000 and 85,000 abandoned mine sites and features. 80% of these sites and features have not been remediated.

Another sign of progress that has been underway is the resilience, community support and activism the Diné have demonstrated.

On August 14th a dozen Diné youth, most of whom are a part of the group Nihígaal Bee Iiná or Journey for Our Existence, stopped a meeting between John McCain and Navajo Nation politicians regarding the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement. A bill that would require the Navajo and Hopi to waive their water rights so that surrounding cities can have access to this river and aquifers.

Another selfless and brave act to help the Diné during this water crisis was done by Liz McKenzie. She created Hózhó20 and was able to collect thousands of gallons of water for people whose drinking was turned off. Eryn Wise has also shown awesome support by starting a crowdfunding campaign to buy water for people in the Shiprock Chapter.

If I’ve learned anything from this disaster, it’s that the Diné community is incredibly resilient—it’s in our DNA. While this is true and even though we will continue to pray and work for hozhó (Balance and Harmony) and continue to stand against the forces that threaten our way of life, we need support from our allies, not only in dealing with this water crisis but in stopping and mitigating other disasters to come. Fracking and uranium mining projects are happening and are increasing on the Navajo Nation, getting closer and closer to our sacred sites. This spill was a just a sample of the damage these projects can do. We need all communities to understand that this is not just a Diné problem or a Coloradoan, or a New Mexican problem, because, like my relative Wysper says, “when the water is contaminated, because we are all a part of the hydrologic cycle, we are all contaminated”.

** An update from this weekend: “President Russell Begaye has cleared the Fruitland canal in Northwestern New Mexico for reopening…Still, not all of the tribal irrigation systems along the San Juan are reopening”. Read the full story here.

Jade Begay