Navajo Prep group earns $10K scholarship for mine spill study

Group is in running for a second $10K scholarship prize

Megan Petersen
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Navajo Preparatory School students have earned $10,000 in scholarships and awards for their research on the lingering chemical effects of the Gold King Mine spill on the Animas River in the 2017 Lexus Eco Challenge.

Keona Hosteen, left, Jiles Larrison, Miauaxochiti Haskie, Sky Harper, Kaylin McLiverty and Xander Jones of the Flying Eagles research team prepare for a presentation on Thursday during science class at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington.

A group of sophomores and juniors in Navajo Prep science teacher Yolanda Flores’ gifted and talented STEM program submitted a six-week extracurricular research project to the online competition and won $8,000 in scholarships for seven students, Flores and the school’s other science teacher, Kevin Keeley, as well as a $2,000 award for the school for equipment, Flores said.

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The Lexus Eco Challenge is an online contest for students in sixth through 12th grades to research environmental issues related to air, climate, land and water, according to the challenge website. The competition is organized in three phases. The first is a land and water project, the second is an air and climate project, and the third is an invitation-only, international competition final. Phase I and II winners receive $10,000 in scholarships for each phase, and the Phase III winning team will take home $30,000 in scholarships.

Navajo Prep’s Flying Eagles team was named a Phase I winner for the high school division in the Western Region in November. Team members are Lila Crank, Sky Harper, Mia Haskie, Keona Hosteen, Xander Jones, Jiles Larrison and Kaylin McLiverty.

Students Kaylin McLiverty, left, and Sky Harper talk about their Gold King Mine spill research project on Thursday at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington.

The students spent approximately six weeks at the beginning of the school year gathering and preparing water samples from Berg Park for analysis. They submerged green onion roots in the water samples and sent dried pieces of the roots to a lab that processed the information and returned the results, which showed high levels of iron and zinc, though the levels have declined since the spill in 2015.

“It’s OK. It’s nothing too toxic, but it’s still a little unsafe,” Xander Jones said during a classroom presentation of their research.

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The students also studied the effects of the spill on microorganisms in the river and found that caddisflies and damselflies are still slightly affected by the chemicals from the spill.

The students said the project offered them the opportunity to study real issues in their communities.

Science teacher Yolanda Flores talks about her students' research projects on Thursday at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington.

“It’s a good opportunity, (outside of) the reservation, to see what other problems that need to be taken into account and get results and solutions for,” Keona Hosteen said.

The group also worked on a Phase II project regarding air and climate issues. They built a methane emissions detector and surveyed a variety of different sites to identify high-emissions areas and potential sources.

More:EPA: 540 tons of metals entered river in mine spill

The results of the Phase II competition are due back in early January. Flores said today she hadn’t heard from the challenge organizers whether the Flying Eagles are a Phase II winner, which would earn them an additional $10,000 in student, teacher and school scholarships and awards.

Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or