Shiprock approves university study on San Juan
By Sunnie Clahchischiligi and Cindy Yurth
Shiprock Chapter Sunday passed two resolutions in connection with the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill: one to allow Navajo scientists to study the incident and another to convene a meeting with President Russell Begaye and Shiprock’s surrounding chapters to come up with a strategy to deal with the shutoff of the canals coming from the San Juan River.
The chapter voted 71-0-2 to allow Navajo scientists from Northern Arizona University and University of Arizona to conduct a comprehensive study on the San Juan River water and sediments after a spill of 13 million gallons of water containing heavy metals into Cement Creek, upstream from the San Juan, and 71-1-3 for the meeting.
The study, to be titled “Tó’ Litso, the Water is Yellow: Investigating Short-Term Exposure and Risk Perception among Navajo Communities to the Gold King Mine Toxic Spill,” will also examine the health impacts on communities downstream of the spill and people’s perception of risk as opposed to actual risk, according to the resolution.
Lead researcher will be Navajo hydrologist Karletta Chief of NAU.
As for the meeting called for in the second resolution, it would be “to unify local thinking and strategy …, to avoid a ‘crisis of authority’ between home rule and central government authority,” to press Begaye to “enforce the crisis response system” and to encourage continued testing of the water and soils.
Gadii’ahi/To’koi Chapter, downstream from Shiprock, has already passed a resolution 16-4-0 to turn the canals on, and Tsé Daa Kaan was scheduled to vote Sunday.
At a meeting of Shiprock farmers Saturday, Shiprock resident Irvin Shaggy presented results of his own tests of the river, commissioned from inventor and clean water advocate Scott Smith of Boston, Mass. The samples, collected Aug. 11, after the spill flowed through Shiprock, basically mirror the results for that date posted by the USEPA on its website (aluminum: 34 parts per billion in the Smith study vs. 39 in the EPA study; barium 54 in the Smith study vs. 73 in the EPA study; iron 18 vs. 17; lead 0.09 vs. 0.06). They’re also almost exactly the same as the levels measured by the EPA on Aug. 6, before the spill hit Shiprock (aluminum 41, barium 75, iron 5 and lead 0.06).
However, while both the USEPA and the Navajo Nation EPA have declared the water to be safe for irrigation, Shaggy noted some of the elements are still above EPA limits for safe drinking water. Most farmers at the meeting said they still don’t want to use it to water their crops. They also said they are upset that President Russell Begaye has allowed the water to be turned on to the Fruitland canal system, which waters Upper Fruitland, Nenahnezad and San Juan chapters, since the water will then flow through the Shiprock system.
The intake to the canals has been closed since Aug. 8, a day before the orange-colored spill made its way downriver to the Navajo Nation. Many crops are already lost, though rain and water brought in by government and private donors has helped farmers save some.
“Our position to not turn the water back on is still in place,” said Shiprock Chapter President Duane “Chili” Yazzie, referring to an Aug. 21 resolution that passed 104-0-11. The farmers of his chapter also need the Navajo Nation to deliver irrigation water to them, Yazzie said, along with any funding the Nation can provide to compensate them for the loss of their crops.
“To this day, the Navajo Nation has not sent water trucks,” Yazzie said, although water stations have been set up for residents to fill up their containers.
Yazzie also called for the Navajo Nation Council to reinstate the state of emergency it lifted last week so funds could be freed up to help farmers.
In the long term, he said, the Nation must fully fund the Navajo Nation EPA so it can do more testing, and build an alternative water system from the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry or Cutter Dam. He also wants a filtration system at the irrigation intake.
The farmers have made it clear at this and previous meetings they do not trust either the USEPA or the Navajo Nation EPA.
The only communities on the Navajo Nation that use the San Juan for a drinking water source are Montezuma Creek, Utah and Halchita, Utah, after the water is put through a treatment plant.
Very few rivers across the U.S. are fit to drink from untreated; all 50 states have health advisories against drinking from open water sources. The standards for irrigation water are much lower, as plant roots filter out minerals they can’t use and only trace amounts of the minerals end up in the fruits and vegetables people eat.