Category Archives: Us Environmental Protection Agency



The San Juan River

The San Juan River
Ron Reiring/Flickr

One day after Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye formally requested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency help his government deal with the fallout of last month’s Gold King Mine spill, the FEMA team from Region IX is set to meet and discuss a possible response.

Begaye’s letter specifically requested a federal disaster recovery coordinator, a FEMA-designated point person that helps coordinate federal and state assistance resources and implement a recovery plan.

“The FDRC could assist the Nation to effectively assess the short- and long-term impact of the disaster, determine priorities, and activate a recovery support strategy,” Begaye’s letter states.

FEMA spokesman John Hamill confirms that sending an FDRC is certainly one of many options the agency will discuss at its meeting this afternoon, but that the overall conversation will be about “the best way [to move] forward.”

There are a few tricky details to work out, too, Hamill explains, because what Begaye has requested is somewhat unprecedented when it comes to FEMA’s typical response procedure.

FEMA derives its authority to respond to a disaster from the Stafford Act, which stipulates that FEMA resources can be deployed after the president declares a national disaster. According to Hamill, since President Obama never declared one, “FEMA usually wouldn’t be involved in a situation like this.”

That’s not to say “an FDRC can’t be deployed without a national disaster declaration,” he adds. “We just want to figure out [the details].”

Polluted Animas River

Polluted Animas River
On August 5, an EPA cleanup effort went awry and accidentally released more than 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River. The sludge was carried hundreds of miles downstream and ended up in the San Juan River, which flows through the northern section of the Navajo Nation.

Following the spill, Begaye made national headlines by declaring his intention to sue the EPA; it’s a promise he appears to be keeping, as his office announced earlier this week that it chose a law firm to represent the tribe in a lawsuit.

The EPA said it would remedy the situation and has led the massive recovery effort, but still some in the Navajo Nation don’t believe the agency is doing enough, or that more help is needed.

Thousands of Navajo farmers have either lost crops or had their yields diminished after the tribal government shut off irrigation water from the San Juan River, and leaders warn of big economic losses.

Despite farmers’ complaints, Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency director Donald Benn has determined that the river water is safe for limited irrigation use, and Begaye lifted irrigation restrictions for the Upper Fruitland, San Juan, and Nenahnezad chapters of the Nation. The ban on using the water for livestock still remains in place, and the Shiprock Chapter has voted not to use it on crops.

On the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad overlooking the Animas River less than 24 hours after the spill

On the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad overlooking the Animas River less than 24 hours after the spill

“This expansion [of pollutants] into Navajo lands via the San Juan River has critically impacted the River and its dependent ecosystems, including wildlife, fish, [human] populations, and the land base adjacent to the River. The nature of this toxic chemical spill will acutely and chronically impact the River and dependent ecosystem if immediate and effective corrective actions and remedies are not taken,” Begaye writes.

The Navajo Nation EPA and tribal government have worked with the federal EPA to address lingering issues, but according to Begaye, “The appointment of an FDRC by FEMA at this stage of the Nation’s response to this toxic chemical spill would greatly benefit the Nation.”

In Begaye’s estimation, “an FDRC could assist the Nation to effectively assess the short- and long-term impact of the disaster, determine priorities, and activate a recovery support strategy,” coordinate assistance with other federal agencies, and help to get a “team of recovery specialists” involved.

“We haven’t said yes, and we haven’t said no,” says Hamill, adding that FEMA certainly will work with local experts to at least assess the damage.

“But I don’t know if [the agency] will pull the trigger [and] make a decision [about sending assistance] today because it’s kind of new territory.”

CBS Sunday Morning Viewers Open Wallets for Navajo Nation

Navajo Water 5

Last week on CBS Sunday Morning withCharles Osgood, correspondent Lee Cowan and producer Sari Aviv had a cover story about the efforts to get water to some parts of the Navajo Nation, where people live without running water.George McGraw, executive director of DigDeep, a non-profit trying to build a well there, was featured in the piece.

Building a well for the Navajo would cost upwards of $500,000. According to McGraw, since the piece aired Sunday, Aug. 16 he’s raised $550,000, with more coming in.

According to McGraw, the money raised from CBS Sunday Morning viewers will pay for a new well with additional donations used to buy fuel to a water delivery truck and build basic plumbing in some homes.

“The generosity of CBS Sunday Morning viewers will allow us to expand our work to other communities in need, until there’s no American family left there without water,” McGraw said, adding there’s still work to be done. “Smith Lake is just one community among many facing similar conditions. Almost 90,000 people on the Navajo Reservation don’t have safe, running water at home.” Here’s the story:

CBS Sunday Morning Viewers Open Wallets for Navajo Nation


Navajo Nation Opts to Keep San Juan Closed

Navajo Nation Opts to Keep San Juan Closed
Many farmers in the Navajo Nation, who use the river for livestock and irrigation, remain concerned about the water quality in the river.     Photo: Sue Nichols / Flickr

Navajo Nation Opts to Keep San Juan Closed

Due to contamination concerns following Gold King mine spill

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye will uphold restrictions on using water from New Mexico’s San Juan River for farming purposes for at least one year, according to a Monday news release. The Environmental Protection Agency declared that pollutant levels in the river had returned to normal on August 15, ten days after 3 million gallons of hazardous waste leaked from the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, into the Animas and San Juan rivers. But many farmers in the Navajo Nation, who use the river for livestock and irrigation, remain concerned about the water quality in the San Juan River.

“Please understand this is very stressful for them, and this is their livelihood,” Megan Cox, a spokesperson from the Navajo Nation president’s office, told the Guardian. “They are growing organic crops and do not want to harm the land, their crops or any individuals by exposure to these chemicals.”

At a meeting on Saturday, Begaye discussed reopening canals accessed by the farmers in Shiprock, New Mexico. The farmers voted 104-0, with nine abstaining, in favor of maintaining existing closures for another year.

“No testing has been done on the Navajo reservation,” Joe Ben Jr., Shiprock’s farm board representative, told the Guardian. “And the tests were not disclosed; which metals were present? If we knew, we could make a decision.”

Navajo Nation farmers intend to gather water from water hauling companies contracted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Mercury finds its way into Grand Canyon

Arizona Daily Sun

Mercury in Grand Canyon
August 25, 2015 3:45 am  •  EMERY COWAN Sun Staff Reporter
Related Links

It was almost three years ago that mercury levels in fish in Lake Powell spurred state regulators to issue a fish consumption advisory for striped bass.

Now, new research shows that mercury, as well as selenium, aren’t staying put in Lake Powell, but are slipping past Glen Canyon Dam and ending up in everything from algae to bugs and fish downstream.

The U.S. Geological Survey study found that concentrations of mercury and selenium in Colorado River food webs of the Grand Canyon regularly exceeded risk thresholds for fish, wildlife and even humans.

Despite being one of the most remote ecosystems in the country, the river as it flows through the Grand Canyon isn’t immune to exposure from toxic chemicals like mercury, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a release about a new study. Exposure to high levels of both elements has been linked to decreased reproductive success, growth and survival of aquatic and terrestrial species in the ecosystem, according to the USGS.

Likely sources include naturally occurring selenium deposits as well as air pollution containing mercury generated as much as half-a-globe away.


Based on data collected at six sites along nearly 250 miles of river downstream from Glen Canyon Dam, the researchers found that the mercury and selenium concentrations in minnows, invertebrates and fish exceeded dietary toxicity thresholds set for fish and fish-eating wildlife. It also found that the mean mercury concentrations in many of the fish studied exceeded the risk threshold for humans.

The one piece of good news is that the mercury levels found in rainbow trout, most commonly eaten by anglers, were still below the threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency that would trigger advisories for human consumption, according to a USGS summary of the study.

“Every fish we looked at from Glen Canyon was way below any risk threshold and the fish we looked at downstream were way below that threshold as well, so it doesn’t appear to be any risk to humans through consumption of trout,” said Ted Kennedy, a USGS researcher at the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center in Flagstaff, who was a co-author on the study.

There are no consumption advisories in place for any of the fish harvested from the study area.

The study was the first of its kind that looked at the extent and magnitude of contaminants in the Grand Canyon, Kennedy said. The study focused on trout, because they are most likely to be consumed by humans, but it also looked at five other species of fish including the threatened speckled dace, common carp and flannelmouth sucker, a species of special concern under the state of Arizona.

The study makes clear that more research needs to be done, especially related to potential risks to humans who consume fish from Grand Canyon or Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, according to the paper.


It also produced some surprising findings, Kennedy said.

One was the fact that the tissues of bigger rainbow trout didn’t exhibit greater, or even the same, mercury levels as smaller trout, defying the process of biomagnification, where chemical concentrations increase higher up the food chain, Kennedy said. The explanation lies in the unique dynamic of the Grand Canyon ecosystem, Kennedy said.

Insect food sources for fish are quite limited in the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam, most likely due to temperature and flow regimes of the regulated river, Kennedy explained. While smaller fish can satisfy their caloric needs by eating just insects, there aren’t enough of the invertebrates to make up the entire diet of larger fish, forcing them to feed on other less calorie-dense organic matter like algae, Kennedy said.

The catch is that blackflies, a key food source for trout, are also a prime source of mercury contamination because they eat a type of algae that carries high amounts of a bioavailable form of mercury.

“We think (the mercury) is getting picked up by that algae in Lake Powell and exported into Grand Canyon,” Kennedy said.

Another interesting part of the study was that the researchers didn’t observe any developmental side effects like deformities that are normally associated with mercury, which is a neurotoxin.

That finding is evidence of a well-documented relationship between selenium and mercury whereby, in the right concentrations, selenium protects animals from mercury toxicity, Kennedy said.

“If both of these things are at high levels together, it can mitigate effects of having just one of them in a high concentration,” he explained.

Tracing mercury sources

Kennedy also recognized that the U.S. Geological Survey’s food web study opens up the need for additional research into exposure pathways in order to figure out where exactly the mercury and selenium ending up in the Grand Canyon are coming from.

While selenium concentrations come from irrigation of selenium-rich soils in the upper Colorado River basin, most mercury found in the Grand Canyon ecosystem is deposited from the atmosphere, the USGS paper said. That means it is harder to trace to a specific source, though.

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining and then coal combustion are the two largest anthropogenic sources of mercury emissions, according to the EPA. Environmental groups have pointed to the Navajo Generating Station and other coal-fired power plants around Lake Powell as prime culprits for mercury deposition on the lake.

The USGS study does acknowledge the power plant, which emits 420 pounds of mercury per year, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, as one potential source, but it emphasizes that’s certainly not the only likely offender.

“Navajo Generating Station is a potential source, but there’s a lot of atmospheric mercury out there even before you consider Navajo,” Kennedy said.

Linking mercury contamination in Lake Powell, or in the Colorado River Basin, to specific sources is difficult because it remains in the atmosphere for up to six months after it is initially emitted, said David Gay, coordinator of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program. That’s long enough for mercury emitted in one place to waft up into the atmosphere and then get carried hundreds or thousands of miles, Gay said.

University of Nevada-Reno researcher Mae Gustin has studied the sources of mercury that ended up in California and Nevada and came to findings similar to Gay. Several of Gustin’s research papers found that atmospheric mercury sources were lofted pollution from California’s major cities or air that traveled from as far away as Asia, which is the biggest source of mercury globally.

“Mercury is a global pollutant,” Gay said. “Everybody is in it together.”

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or

EPA releases internal report into Gold King Mine spill disaster

Filed Under: Environment | National | Politics
More on: 114thcoloradodoiepagold king minenavajonew mexico,sciasouthern uteutahwater

According to the EPA report on the Gold King Mine,”The inability to obtain an actual measurement of the mine water pressure behind the entrance blockage seems to be a primary issue at this particular site,” the report stated. “If the pressure information was obtained, other steps could have been considered. However, the team cannot determine whether any such steps would have been effective, or could have been implemented prior to a blowout.”

Animas River pollution


From left: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, examine conditions on the San Juan River last week. Photo from Navajo Nation President / Facebook

The Environmental Protection Agency released an internal report about the Gold King Mine spill on Wednesday.According to the report, contractors at the site underestimated the water pressure at the mine. As a result, excavation work accidentally caused a “blowout” on August 5, unleashing about 3 millions of gallons of toxic mine waste into the water system.“The inability to obtain an actual measurement of the mine water pressure behind the entrance blockage seems to be a primary issue at this particular site,” the report stated. “If the pressure information was obtained, other steps could have been considered. However, the team cannot determine whether any such steps would have been effective, or could have been implemented prior to a blowout.”The report is the first government-led assessment of the incident, which prompted the Navajo Nation, the Southern Ute TribeColoradoNew Mexico and Utah to declare emergencies and issue disaster declarations. Water conditions immediately after the spill showed high levels of mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxins.

The scene of the spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado. Photo from EPA

Conditions on the Animas River in Colorado and the San Juan River in New Mexico have since improved. But Navajo leaders refuse to lift restrictions on the use of the San Juan out of concern for agricultural crops and livestock.The Office of Inspector General at the EPA is also reviewing the incident and the Interior Department has launched a review at EPA’s request.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on September 16 in Washington, D.C., to address the impacts of the spill on the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Tribe.

Get the Story:

Talks continue about reopening irrigation system on Navajo Nation (The Farmington Daily-Times 8/27)
Investigation: EPA, state missed potential for mine blowout (AP 8/27)
‘Insufficient’ planning cited in EPA investigation of Gold King Mine spill(The Durango Herald 8/27)
Wildlife officials survey Animas River fish in wake of Gold King Mine spill(The Durango Herald 8/27)
Navajo Nation committee hears irrigation concerns from chapter officials(The Farmington Daily-Times 8/26)
Navajo Nation President reinforces San Juan River restrictions (The Farmington Daily-Times 8/25)
Legal experts say they need more time to determine mine spill fallout(The Farmington Daily-Times 8/24)
Shiprock Chapter opposes irrigation activities (The Farmington Daily-Times 8/22)Related Stories:

Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold hearing on EPA mine spill (8/26)
Native Sun News: Tribes respond to toxic spill at abandoned mine (8/25)
Navajo Nation remains cautious after spill impacts water system (8/21)
Navajo Nation farmers losing crops amid mine spill concerns (8/18)
Leader of EPA visits Navajo Nation after mine spill in Colorado (8/13)
President of Navajo Nation upset with EPA’s response to spill (8/12)
Navajo Leader: ‘This is an assault on who we are as Dine people’ (8/11)
Navajo Nation to sue EPA over release of mine waste into waters (8/10)

EPA Water Pressure evidently never checked before Colorado mine spiill

Via San Juan Citizens Alliance Page

EPA’s internal report on the Gold King Mine blowout released details about what exactly went wrong. An independent investigation is also being done.
This highlights the need for extensive resources to address the other 22,000 old mines in Colorado.

Denver West-Denver Post-Agency says, Gold King Mine not checked for water volume. By John Paul The Denver Post
Animas River pollution

August 13: One of the retention ponds underneath the Gold King Mine on August 13, 2015. The San Juan County and the city of Silverton have a rich mining history with hundreds of mines being in the county including the Gold King Mine which spilled wastewater into the Animas River. Many of these mines were left abandoned or not properly bulkheaded which opens the possibility of wastewater draining into the rivers and creeks below. (Brent Lewis, Denver Post file photo)

Dangerously high levels of water pressure behind the collapsed opening of the Gold King Mine were never checked by the Environmental Protection Agency, in part because of cost and time concerns.

The revelations came Wednesday as the EPA released an internal review of a massive Aug. 5 blowout at the mine above Silverton. The report called an underestimation of the pressure the most significant factor leading to the spill.

According to the report, had crews drilled into the mine’s collapsed opening, as they had done at a nearby site, they “may have been able to discover the pressurized conditions that turned out to cause the blowout.”

The EPA-triggered wastewater release sent yellow-orange sludge cascading through three states and the land of two American Indian tribes. The internal review for the first time reveals what the EPA believes went wrong at Gold King, which 14 months before the spill they knew was at risk for blowout.

“It is not evident that the potential volume of water stored within the (mine’s opening) had been estimated,” the review said. “Given the maps and information known about this mine, a worst-case scenario estimate could have been calculated and used for planning purposes.”

According to the review, drilling into the collapsed opening would have been “quite costly” and taken more time because of soil and rock conditions at the site.The review says crews believed that because water was leaking from the Gold King and based on seep levels above its opening, a buildup of pressure was “less likely.” Because of those signs, officials say, drilling appeared to be unnecessary.

“The mine was draining,” Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator in the office of solid waste and emergency response, said Wednesday during a media conference call.

EPA supervisor Hays Griswold, who was at the scene of the blowout Aug. 5, told The Denver Post in an interview this month that conditions in the mine were worse than anticipated.

“Nobody expected (the acid water backed up in the mine) to be that high,” he said.

The report says, however, that decreased wastewater flows from the mine, which had been leaching for years, could have offered a clue to the pressurization. Also, a June 2014 task order about work at the mine said “conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages.”

The inability to obtain an actual measurement of the mine water pressure behind the mine’s blocked opening “seems to be a primary issue,” according to the review. It went on to say that if the pressure information had been obtained, other steps could have been considered.

It did not elaborate on what those steps could have been.

Stan Meiburg, EPA’s deputy administrator, said during the call that “provisions for a worst-case scenario were not included in the work plan.”

The review, summarized in an 11-page report and led by five EPA workers from multiple EPA regions and headquarters, includes a list of recommendations for further agency mine work throughout the country, including new approaches to mines at risk of blowout and emergency action plans to deal with such disasters.

The investigative team called the mine’s blowout “inevitable” and said actions by those at the scene — who the review said had “extensive experience” — probably prevented fatalities.

The Department of the Interior is conducting an external review of the spill, and it is expected to be released in October. The Congressional Science, Space and Technology Committee also is investigating the blowout.

Cynthia Coffman, Colorado’s attorney general, on Wednesday said the EPA’s internal report is still being mulled over by her office. She and her counterparts in New Mexico and Utah say they are weighing a lawsuit against the EPA.

The Navajo Nation says it intends to sue.

“A non-federal, independent review is a must,” Coffman said in a statement to The Post. “I don’t trust the EPA or this administration to investigate itself. It would have never allowed BP to investigate the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Jesse Paul: 303-954-1733, or



“This is how Farmington / EPA treats Shiprock residents. They brought in 10,000 gallon water tanks and filled it with water and this how it came out. People, we’re mad at the Chapter House today.”

EPA water bottles

Geologist Predicted EPA Would Intentionally Poison Animas River A Week Before Toxic Spill

The Free Thought

By John Vibes on August 12, 2015



Silverton, CO — Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spilled over a million gallons of toxic waste into the Animas river in Colorado. This is, of course, ironic considering the fact that the EPA is the government organization that typically prosecutes people for crimes against the environment. In this case, however, the EPA has declared that they are above the law and free from any type of fines or prosecution.

The waste was spilled from an abandoned mine shaft and has now contaminated large stretches of water and connecting rivers that reach into various bordering states. Over 3 million gallons of wastewater containing a number of toxic chemicals is now destroying untold miles of precious waterways.

To make matters even worse, the EPA actually had a warning about this a week prior to the disaster. A week prior to the spill, retired geologist Dave Taylor wrote a letter to the editor in “The Silverton Standard” pointing out that the EPA was planning a maneuver that could potentially cause toxins from mineshafts to flood into rivers. He also suggested that the EPA was aware of the possible outcomes, and were going forward with the plan anyway to gain funding.

In the letter, Taylor wrote:

“But make no mistake, within seven days, all of the 500gpm flow will return to Cememnt Creek. Contamination may actually increase… The “grand experiment” in my opinion will fail.

And guess what [EPA’s] Mr. Hestmark will say then?

Gee, “Plan A” didn’t work so I guess we will have to build a treat¬ment plant at a cost to taxpayers of $100 million to $500 million (who knows).

Reading between the lines, I believe that has been the EPA’s plan all along.”

The full letter can be read below:




The EPA actually has no concern for the environment, they just happen to use the environment as a cover story to create laws and gain an advantage for the companies that lobbied for exemptions to the agency’s regulations, and to collect money in fines. There are real solutions outside the common government paradigm, and that is mainly the ability for individuals, not governments, to hold polluters personally and financially accountable

John Vibes is an author, researcher and investigative journalist who takes a special interest in the counter culture and the drug war. In addition to his writing and activist work he organizes a number of large events including the Free Your Mind Conference, which features top caliber speakers and whistle-blowers from all over the world. You can contact him and stay connected to his work at his Facebook page. You can find his 65 chapter Book entitled “Alchemy of the Timeless Renaissance” at


EPA withholds mine spill documents from Congress


By Tori Richards


Aug. 12, 2015: Water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine chemical accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo. (AP)

A congressional committee blasted the Environmental Protection Agency today for blocking release of documents related to the Gold King mine disaster, which poured deadly chemicals into the largest source of drinking water in the West.

“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the EPA failed to meet the House Science Committee’s reasonable deadline in turning over documents pertaining to the Gold King Mine spill,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). “These documents are essential to the Committee’s ongoing investigation and our upcoming hearing on Sept. 9. But more importantly, this information matters to the many Americans directly affected in western states, who are still waiting for answers from the EPA.”

Smith – who frequently spars with the EPA – is chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. EPA director Gina McCarthy has been asked to appear and answer questions about the agency’s role in creating a 3-million-gallon toxic spill into Colorado’s Animas River on Aug. 5. Critics say McCarthy and the EPA have been unresponsive, secretive and unsympathetic toward millions of people who live in three states bordering the river.

For several days, the EPA didn’t notify the states of Utah, New Mexico or the Navajo Nation that the spill was coming their way. McCarthy waited a week before visiting Colorado and even then she refused to tour Silverton, the town nearest the Gold King mine where EPA contractors unleashed the toxic plume into waterways that feed the Colorado River. The agency withheld the name of the contractor working on the project and other details that are generally considered public information. Lastly, the Navajo Nation, which relies on the river for drinking water and farming, received an emergency supply from the EPA in oil-contaminated containers.

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Navajo Crops Drying Out as San Juan River Remains Closed After Toxic Spill

Alysa Landry
Cecelia Wallace, of Mexican Water, Utah, stands in her wilted garden Sunday along the San Juan River on the Navajo Nation.

Navajo Crops Drying Out as San Juan River Remains Closed After Toxic Spill


Cecelia Wallace stood in her garden in the Navajo community of Mexican Water, Utah, surveying her wilting, sun-scorched plants.

The one-acre garden, a green oasis on the southern banks of the San Juan River, has been without water for almost two weeks. Wallace, 60, is one of thousands of Navajo residents downstream from Colorado’s Gold King Mine, which on August 5 began spewing toxic wastewater into the a river that feeds the San Juan, prompting farmers and ranchers to stop pumping water for their animals and crops.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Wallace said. “All I can do is just watch the garden die.”

Wallace, like many farmers and ranchers who rely on the river, got a frantic phone call when news of the spill broke. Hundreds of miles upstream, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crew had accidentally released three million gallons of wastewater into Cement Creek. The plume was making its way from there to the Animas River, which joins the San Juan River in Farmington, New Mexico, then continues on a 215-mile journey through the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona before emptying into Lake Powell.

RELATED: Toxic River Spill Flowing Across Navajo Nation Is 3 Million Gallons, Not One: EPA

“When I heard about it, I went to my garden and picked as much as I could,” Wallace said. “Then we just waited.”

Wallace was one of many who learned about the spill, but not its details. She knew the mustard-colored sludge was moving downstream, but she didn’t know when it would arrive or how long it would poison her section of the river.

RELATED: Navajo Nation Braces for a Million Gallons of Mining Wastewater

It turned out Wallace had four days to prepare. The waste traveled through portions of three states and three Indian reservations, prompting local, state and tribal officials to declare emergencies and restrict access to the river. The plume reached Wallace’s land in the southeastern corner of Utah on Sunday, August 9.

Wallace watched as the water turned gradually from brown to pink to a bright red-orange.

“It was thick as gravy, running slow,” she said. “Upriver, we could see the red color still coming.”

Details trickled in slowly. First, the EPA reported that samples taken from the river contained extremely high levels of heavy metals, including lead at 12,000 times higher than normal. In preliminary statements about contamination and cleanup, the EPA estimated it could take decades to rid the river and its sediments of toxins.

An estimated 2,000 Navajo farmers and ranchers were directly affected by the spill, which is still pouring out of the mine at the rate of 600 gallons per minute, though EPA officials say it is being treated in settling ponds before being released. Two weeks after the initial breach, the EPA reports that the river has returned to its pre-incident condition. The color has faded, and all three states have lifted restrictions on river usage.

But the Navajo Nation has not given the okay to resume using the water. Citing long-term effects of toxins in the riverbed and banks, Navajo President Russell Begaye continues to warn residents to stay clear while the Nation conducts an independent analysis.

Begaye has launched a website called Operation Yellow Water, where he plans to keep residents updated on river conditions, and said he plans to hold the EPA accountable for cleaning up the mess.

“We are asking that people keep using alternate sources of water,” said Mihio Manus, a spokesman for the Nation’s central incident command center. “We are continuing to advise people not to use it to irrigate, to water livestock or to use it for recreation.”

Tanks filled with thousands of gallons of non-potable water are serving ranchers and farmers along the river’s corridor. Trucks hauling bottled drinking water were dispatched to the more remote areas where residents rely on wells.

Tanks full of non-potable water are available in areas across the San Juan River valley for irrigation and livestock. (Photo: Alysa Landry)

Tanks full of non-potable water are available in areas across the San Juan River valley for irrigation and livestock. (Photo: Alysa Landry)

But in places like Mexican Water, the assistance isn’t going far enough, Wallace said. Here, the nearest paved road is five miles away; the nearest grocery store is 35 miles, and to get to the nearest Wal-Mart, Wallace has to cross two state lines. Here, the spill has left residents shaken, spiritually wrecked and facing financial ruin. And they’re still waiting for answers.

“We knew catastrophe was coming our way, but there was no way to control it,” Wallace said. “We know this river. We know the sediment moves slowly and that the worst of the pollution is yet to come.”

Wallace grew up along a secluded bend in the river where the water is the color of chocolate milk and where the muddy banks are pockmarked with tracks from deer, raccoon and the occasional bear. Tucked into the rust-tinted sandstone cliffs on the far side of the river are remnants of cliff dwellings—evidence that earlier inhabitants also used this fertile valley.

As a child, Wallace and her five siblings bathed and swam in the river. They herded sheep to its banks and labored in the nearby fields, which produced enough food to support the family and many others in the community.

“This was our playground,” Wallace said. “This was where we lived. As a family, we never relied on anyone else. This river was our life support, our income. It sustained us.”

The river is still home for Wallace and four of her siblings, who till the land and grow a variety of produce, including melons, squash, corn and sunflowers—much of which they donate to food banks or deliver to elders.


Cecelia Wallace relies on her one-acre garden on the banks of the San Juan River for fresh produce, including sunflower seeds. (Photo: Alysa Landry)
Cecelia Wallace relies on her one-acre garden on the banks of the San Juan River for fresh produce, including sunflower seeds. (Photo: Alysa Landry)

Wallace’s brother, Gerald Maryboy, keeps a herd of 100 cattle on a neighboring plot. When he learned about the Gold King Mine spill, he chased his herd up the hill and began round-the-clock policing to keep them away from the river.

Maryboy, 57, also turned off his irrigation pump and abandoned his fields of alfalfa. The family’s garden, once a lush green strip along the river, now is brown and wilted. Just weeks ahead of harvest, squash and melons lie rotting in the bone-dry soil.

“We were told that everything within 500 feet of the river was contaminated,” Maryboy said. “You might look at this and say it’s just plants, that they can be replaced. But we treat our plants like living beings. This hurts.”

At the beginning of the third week since the spill, Wallace and her family are bracing for more emotional and spiritual fallout. No EPA crews have visited Mexican Water, Wallace said, and she doesn’t know when, or if, the river will be safe to use.

“Years back, when we were kids, the adults used to bless the river with corn pollen and put the four sacred stones into the water,” she said. “Water is life, so they blessed the water. The earth is sacred. The seeds, the growing things, all of them are sacred. Now what will we do?”