FARMINGTON — A sewer line spill at Tse' Bit' Ai Middle School in Shiprock has left a stinky situation for residents as agencies argue over who is responsible for the cleanup.

Neighbors surrounding the school are complaining of foul smells wafting into their yards since the sewer overflowed, which neighbors believe could have started more than two weeks ago.

The Central Consolidated School District said the line was outside its property line, though the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, or NTUA, argues otherwise.

"They (the NTUA Shiprock District) said that the break is on the school property," said Deenise Becenti, utility spokeswoman.

While school district officials said the break was not on school property, they confirmed that district maintenance crews began to clean up the area early this week. They could not confirm whether the repair was complete.

District officials would not comment on the issue further, stating that it could become a legal issue.

The NTUA Shiprock District did, however, inspect the spill and concluded that it was a backed up line.

"It looked like someone had dumped some debris into the manhole," said Rex Kontz, utility deputy general manager.

It appeared that someone had placed asphalt into the line, which obstructed the waste. At a certain point, the waste backed up and overflowed.

"It smells," said Alfred Curley, Sr., a resident who lives just north of the school.

As with most of the school's neighbors, Curley lives down slope from the school.


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He began noticing a foul odor about two weeks ago, as well as water that was coming down the hill from the school yard.

"They were only cleaning it up just the other day, but just their (the school's) area," said Curley, who noticed a maintenance crew cleaning up an area in the school yard that appears to be where the spill originated.

The area is on the school's eastern most playing field, where a large patch is covered in mud and what appears to be pulped toilet paper.

The area has not been closed off to students, according to James Preminger, spokesman for the district, though students have not used the field during the morning or evening recesses because of the unusually cold temperatures. The students have used the field for 10 to 15 minutes at the end of their lunch hour, he said.

"Normally, they (whoever is responsible) would not let the public near the site," said Robert George, the domestic waste team leader for the New Mexico Environmental Department Ground Water Quality Bureau.

Generally maintenance crews should alert the Environmental Protection Agency or the Navajo EPA if it is on the Navajo reservation, and let them know of the situation, he said.

Immediately after, crews are encouraged to gather all "coarse material," or solids that may have been released, he said. The area then should be disinfected with bleach, or other disinfectant materials, George said.

"The real key is how you respond to spills," said George, who noted that most short-term spills are not a long-term health risk. Direct exposure to the materials, however, can create a mild risk.