ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Russell Begaye stared at the yellow water that keeps pouring out of a hole in the side of a Colorado mountain, racing down a slope, and dumping heavy metals into rivers critical to survival on the nation’s largest Native American reservation and across the Southwest.
At the Gold King Mine, Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, couldn’t help but see the concerned faces of his people—the farmers who can’t water their corn now, and the ranchers scrambling to keep their cattle, sheep, and goats away from the polluted San Juan River.
“We were told that the water was clearing up and getting back to normal,” he said. “This is what EPA was telling us. We wanted to go up there as close as we could to the source. We wanted our people to see the water is still yellow.”
Climbing unannounced past barriers and up the mountain, Begaye and a small contingent of Navajo officials got a closer look over the weekend at the mine blowout sending more than 3 million gallons of water laden with lead, arsenic, and other metals into Cement Creek, then down the Animas River and into the San Juan River.
A 100-mile-long plume has since traveled for hundreds of miles, through parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah on the way to Lake Powell, a key source of water for the Southwest. And the yellow sludge has been diluted along the way to the point of transparency, but authorities were still concerned about potentially toxic metals in the plume.
Yellow sludge still poured Wednesday from its source at the mine, 11,300 feet high in the Rockies, where an EPA cleanup crew hastily built a series of four sedimentation ponds by moving small mounds of earth covered in plastic.
EPA officials said Wednesday, Aug. 12, that these ponds aren’t retaining the flow, but they are reducing acidity levels and removing dissolved metals from the water from the runoff flowing into Cement Creek. That flow continues at pre-spill levels of about 213 gallons per minute, but is spreading less contamination than it did before last week’s accident.
Signs are now posted warning people to stay out of the water. Farmers have stopped irrigating and communities have closed water intake systems. Bottled water on the Navajo Nation is becoming scarce.
Begaye said his tribe is bearing the brunt of the massive spill that was accidentally unleashed by EPA workers inspecting the long-idled mine above Silverton, Colorado, on Aug. 5. Two-thirds of the San Juan River crosses Navajo land before reaching Lake Powell.
“This is a huge issue,” Begaye said. “This river, the San Juan, is our lifeline, not only in a spiritual sense but also it’s an economic base that sustains the people that live along the river.
“When EPA is saying to me it’s going to take decades to clean this up, that is how long uncertainty will exist as we drink the water, as we farm the land, as we put our livestock out there near the river,” he said. “That is just, to me, a disaster of a huge proportion.”
Frustration is mounting throughout the Four Corners region among officials and residents who said the EPA has moved too slowly and hasn’t been forthcoming about the dangers of the spill. The Navajo Nation feels even more slighted given its status as a federally recognized tribe and sovereign nation.
Begaye said he has yet to receive a call from President Barack Obama. “It seems like the Obama administration just closed their doors and disappeared,” he said.
On Wednesday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy planned to tour sites in New Mexico and Colorado affected by the spill. She called it a tragic and unfortunate incident, saying the EPA was taking responsibility to ensure the mess was cleaned up.
“I am absolutely, deeply sorry that this ever happened,” she said Tuesday in Washington.
The EPA has said the current flows are too fast for the contaminants to pose an immediate health threat, and that the heavy metals will likely be diluted over time so they don’t pose a longer-term threat, either.
Tests show some of the metals have settled to the bottom of the rivers and would dissolve only if conditions became acidic, which experts said isn’t likely.
Fish testing was going on Tuesday in the Animas River near Durango, Colorado, with biologists working to determine the leak’s impact on fish.
“We didn’t have a big fish kill in the river,” said Jim White, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “The one thing we don’t know is sort of long term impacts to the aquatic community out here in general.”
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper visited a contaminated stretch of the Animas and said he hopes a “silver lining” to the disaster will be a more aggressive state and federal effort to deal with mining’s “legacy of pollution” across the West.
On the Navajo Nation, some 30,000 acres of crops are in danger without irrigation. Farmers also worry about contaminating their irrigation ditches once the gates are reopened, and ranchers are looking for assurances that livestock won’t be exposed to contaminants each time they wade into the river and kick up sediment while getting a drink.
Navajo farmers are in the middle of alfalfa season and without rain, tribal officials said they will be in trouble. They have been flooding the airwaves and social media with Navajo-language public service announcements to keep people updated.
Federal officials have said they are working to review and analyze data gathered from samples taken along the two rivers.
McCarthy said Tuesday that initial results show high levels of contaminants in the water have been diminishing as the plume moves downstream. Workers have built four ponds at the mine site to capture and treat additional discharges, she said.
Heavy metals from Gold King and other defunct mines in Colorado have been leaching out and killing fish and other species for decades as rain and snowmelt spills from abandoned, exposed sites.
The EPA has considered making part of the Animas River in Colorado a Superfund site for a quarter-century.
The designation would have provided more resources for a cleanup, but some people in Colorado opposed the status, fearing the stigma and federal strings attached, so the EPA agreed to allow local officials to lead cleanup efforts instead.