Navajo Nation 'Lifeline' Under Threat from Toxic Mine Spill

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Navajo Nation 'Lifeline' Under Threat from Toxic Mine Spill

As EPA Chief Gina McCarthy plans to tour affected communities, tribal leaders say they've been ignored by the Obama administration

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye makes an announcement on Aug. 8, 2015 about the Navajo Nation response to the release of mine waste into the Animas River which has impacted the Navajo Nation water supply. (Photo: Rick Abasta/Navajo Nation)

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye makes an announcement on Aug. 8, 2015 about the Navajo Nation response to the release of mine waste into the Animas River which has impacted the Navajo Nation water supply. (Photo: Rick Abasta/Navajo Nation)

The Navajo community is fearing for its land and livelihood as 3 million gallons of yellow water laden with lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals on Wednesday flowed through its territory.

According to the Associated Press on Wednesday, since the August 5 spill at the Gold King Mine, the 100-mile plume has traveled down the Animas and San Juan rivers, through parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. A full two-thirds of the San Juan River crosses Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the country, before it reaches Lake Powell.

Anticipating the worst, farmers on Navajo Nation and elsewhere in the Four Corners region were advised to stop using Lake Powell and the rivers for irrigation, while bottled water is increasingly scarce. The Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management had already declared a state of emergency on the reservation.

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"This is a huge issue," Navajo Nation President Begaye told AP. "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."

On Wednesday, EPA Chief Gina McCarthy is expected to tour the affected communities. In a speech on Tuesday, she apologized for the spill, saying the EPA takes full responsibility to ensure that it is cleaned up. "We are committed to helping the people throughout the Four Corner Regions who rely on these rivers for their drinking water, irrigation water and recreation," McCarthy added in a press statement. "We know how important it is to them."

Despite these promises, Begaye said that the Navajo community, as residents of a sovereign nation, feel as if they've been neglected by the Obama administration. Begaye said he has yet to receive a call from President Barack Obama, AP reports. "It seems like the Obama administration just closed their doors and disappeared," he said.

During a news conference in Durango, Colorado on Tuesday, EPA officials said workers were in the process of treating 500 to 700 gallons of tainted water still leaking from the site.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Though the EPA said stretches of the Animas south of the spill were clearing, residents described orange-colored silt on the river bottom and shoreline in many places. The agency will continue to monitor the silt “for years to come,” EPA officials said, noting that sediment would be stirred up by rainfall or spring runoff.

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