San Juan may reopen today; tribe holding out for more results
San Juan County CEO Kim Carpenter hopes to lift restrictions on using the San Juan River by Sunday afternoon, he told about 160 people who packed the Nenahnezad Chapter House Saturday afternoon to hear an update on the Gold King Mine spill from tribal, state, county and federal officials.
Carpenter said after flying over the river in a helicopter and going over water test data, he is convinced the San Juan is safe to use 10 days after a dam at the mine near Silverton, Colo. was accidentally breached by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, sending three million gallons of metal-laden mine waste down the Animas River and eventually into the San Juan.
However, test results have only come back from the area east of Tse Daa Kaan, N.M., and Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez urged Navajos not to start using the water yet.
“We want to wait until they flush the ditches upstream and then take samples,” he told the crowd of mostly farmers and ranchers, noting that flushing the irrigation ditches could stir up heavy metals in the sediment, polluting the river again.
Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie (Baca/Prewitt/Casamero Lake/Counselor/Littlewater/Ojo Encino/Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake) wondered why it was necessary to flush the canals at all.
“Flushing means all the stuff is coming at us again,” he told Carpenter. “If you care about us, don’t flush.”
Bonnie Hopkins, county Extension agent for San Juan College, said the decision to flush the canals was not made lightly.
“Every single test, whether it was done by private individuals, the state or the county showed the same thing,” she said. “The total metal levels in the water were below safe drinking water limits.”
Tests show sediments left by the spill also are not particularly toxic, she said, noting that according to the New Mexico secretary of environmental health, a child could eat two teaspoons
of the soil every day for 60 days and not get sick.
Carpenter said there has been no evidence of harm to fish or wildlife, although the fish are still being evaluated as to whether they are safe to eat, since they tend to concentrate some heavy metals in their bodies.
Nez and Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch continued to caution farmers and ranchers not to sign Form 95, the standard federal form for disaster relief claims, since it contains a clause saying the claimant can’t continue to sue once he has been reimbursed for damages caused by the incident.
But Upper Fruitland Chapter President Hubert T. Harwood said Form 95 was “looking pretty good” compared to waiting 20-50 years for a tribal lawsuit to be settled, and if the tribe got a settlement it would use the money for programs rather than reimbursing individual farmers.
Tsosie suggested, instead of suing the EPA as President Russell Begaye has threatened, the tribe negotiate with the EPA to take the offending clause out of the form and have “people on the ground” to help Navajos fill it out.
EPA representative Linda Reeve said the agency stopped handing out the forms when it learned the tribe had a problem with the language.
“We will take the message back that the form needs to be changed,” she said. “We need to find a way to document your losses so we can compensate you.”
Meanwhile, the EPA, the affected chapters, the BIA, affected counties and the tribe are working together to deliver hay and water to farmers affected by the shutoff of the irrigation and drinking water systems that draw from the San Juan.
Nez noted that various groups and individuals have set up bank accounts to help the affected farmers, but as it’s possible some of them are not legitimate, any donations should go to Navajo United Way.
He, Carpenter and Tsosie called on the EPA to make the Silverton mining district a Superfund site, but the agency can’t legally do that without approval of Congress, the state of Colorado and the community of Silverton, which so far has been reluctant to jeopardize its scanty summer tourist season by becoming known as a Superfund site.