Did EPA Give Navajo Nation Tainted Water?

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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In the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, EPA officials have been supplying Navajo Nation farmers and livestock herders with water so they don’t have to use river water, which could contain toxic mine waste.

But now, Navajo tribesmen are claiming the water the EPA is giving them is tainted with a black, oily substance.

“I was astounded,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told The Guardian. “I couldn’t believe there were black oily streaks in the water.”

Begaye reportedly filled a cup with the EPA-delivered water three or four times to make sure it was okay. He told The Guardian that when he “ran water from the intake valve, his hand was reportedly coated with oil and grease.”

The allegedly tainted water was delivered to Navajo farm representative Joe Ben, Jr. on Aug. 14, about nine days after the Gold King Mine spill occurred. Ben rejected the water, saying there were signs it was contaminated. The EPA didn’t like his answer and told Begaye that Ben was “an unstable individual” who was “agitating.”

But when Begaye tested the water himself, he saw signs of contamination and sharply criticized the EPA for trying to make Ben seem unhinged and trying to sow discord between the tribe and government officials.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Begaye said. “I couldn’t believe the EPA’s higher-ups basically told me a lie.”

Begaye said the contractor used by the EPA to deliver water to Navajo irrigation pumps that was stored in “barrels… allegedly used in fracking operations,” The Guardian reports. The EPA said the barrels had been thoroughly cleaned, but Begaye disagrees.

“We don’t trust the EPA,” he said, noting that the supposedly tainted water had been given to some livestock and used by some farmers to water their crops. Many Navajo are subsistence farmers and could lose everything if their crops are contaminated.

“Now they are likely to lose all of that,” Begaye told The Guardian.

This is not Begaye’s first showdown with the EPA over the Gold King Mine spill. The Navajo president is also suing the Obama administration over the spill, and claims the government was trying to swindle tribal members out of being compensated for future spill damages.

On Aug. 5, EPA contractors working to stem the flow of mine wastewater from abandoned mines near Silverton, Colorado accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic metals and other pollutants into the Animas River. The bright orange toxic plume flowed for hundreds of miles through the San Juan River — which goes through Navajo Nation — and to Lake Powell, Utah.

EPA officials have said that water in New Mexico has returned to pre-spill levels, including water running through Navajo lands. But trial members and locals are hesitant to trust the EPA’s claims.

State officials are also skeptical of the EPA’s claims that river water has returned to pre-spill levels of toxicity. Experts are still trying to figure out the long-term impacts of the spill, and think the EPA is downplaying the negative impacts of spilling millions of gallons of mine waste.

“We are concerned about this particular sediment load given how the various constituents in the sediment may continue to affect the stream,” Colorado health officials said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Officials noted that there’s “ongoing potential for those [private] wells to be affected as the sediment migrates into the groundwater table.”

Environmental regulators in Utah said water quality tests suggest there was minimal health risks with using San Juan River water. Officials, however, said that while they are trying to determine the long-term effects of the spill, people should not drink the water and should minimize their contact with river dirt and sand.

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