Navajo Nation, San Juan County officials continue to handle toxic waste plume

Joshua Kellogg
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Officials with the Navajo Nation, San Juan County and the state of New Mexico are trying to keep residents informed about the Animas River after an estimated 3 million gallons of contaminated water was released from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo.

The plume of toxic waste passed through San Juan County on Saturday, heading west. It was expected to hit the Colorado-Utah border at about 5 a.m. Monday, according to estimates from the San Juan County Geographical Information Systems department.

Supervisor Evan O'Keefe said he estimated the plume was about 45 miles west of Farmington and about 13 miles south of the New Mexico-Colorado border at about 9 p.m. Sunday.

Throughout San Juan County, access to the Animas River is still closed, said County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter on Sunday afternoon. Officials advise residents with wells in the floodplains of the Animas River and the San Juan River downstream of the confluence of the two rivers to have their water tested before using it for cooking, drinking or bathing.

Carpenter said the biggest obstacle is providing drinking water for residents and livestock.

People and their pets should avoid contact with the river, livestock should not be allowed to drink the water and people should not catch fish in the river. Carpenter also instructed people to avoid contact with wildlife along the river in Berg Park.

Local officials — as well as representatives from the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management, the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Mexico Environment Department — will host daily meetings to update the public on the river. The meetings will be at 6 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St.

"We hope (Monday) to have some pretty good data we can share," Carpenter said. "That's what we are working on now."

Carpenter also voiced frustration about the delay in getting information about the chemicals in the water. The data, he said, will "give us a big picture of what we are going to deal with and the long-term effects we will have to deal with."

Also on Sunday afternoon, the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management declared a state of emergency in response to the contamination. The declaration went before Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye for approval, said Rick Abasta, spokesman for the president. Begaye had not signed the declaration as of 10 p.m., Abasta said.

The declaration allows using tribal resources for an incident command center in the Shiprock Chapter.

On Sunday evening, Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez attended a public meeting in Durango, Colo., after touring the Gold King Mine site.

Begaye told attendees his office will be aggressive in "putting (the EPA's) feet to the fire."

Nez said he felt like crying when he saw the mustard-yellow water stain in the river.

"Water in our region is very important," he said. "It doesn't matter if you are Navajo, if you are Hispanic, if you are Anglo. We are all part of this river basin. Now, we are looking upon the EPA with frustration."

Nez said the pollution will affect farming, drinking water and livestock on the Navajo Nation.

"A lot of livestock utilize the water," he said. "What are we supposed to do? Stand guard 24 hours to keep our livestock from drinking the water?"

The Shiprock Chapter on Sunday evening voted on three resolutions related to the contaminated water, said Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chilli" Yazzie in a phone interview. Yazzie said the resolutions approve the declaration of emergency, request "urgent action" before the United Nations and thank tribal leaders and the incident command team.

Yazzie added that the incident command team has been helping residents and livestock along the San Juan River and has set up locations for people to fill water tanks.

"One of the biggest concerns we have, you can't very well manage livestock that are used to going to the river," Yazzie said.

He also expressed concern about tribal farmers and access to irrigation water.

"We're resigned to the fact that we will not get any irrigation water through our systems for the rest of the season," Yazzie said. "We're just accepting the fact that we have to face losing our crops. That is totally devastating to many, many families. It's very heartbreaking."

On Sunday morning, people walking the trails at Farmington's Berg Park echoed those sentiments, saying the contamination of the water was sad and disappointing.

Farmington resident Elton Daniels said he felt hopeless when he looked at the river after seeing photographs of it.

"I think it's going to have a damaging effect on the water we use," he said.

Officials have set up several potable water stations throughout the county for residents and RV and livestock owners to use.

Owners of RVs and livestock can fill their tanks at 201 W. Chaco St. in Aztec, next to City Hall and the Aztec Police Department. Residents need to bring their own containers and are asked to keep tanks to 100 gallons or less.

Valley Fire Department Capt. Zachary Trujillo said that on Sunday he answered questions from concerned residents about where to go if they run out of water, but no one filled containers on Saturday or Sunday.

"We might have a few more people as the week progresses on and we get the word out throughout the community," Trujillo said.

Officials at Farmington Fire Station No. 6 also said no one showed up to the water station on Sunday.

New Mexico Environment Department spokeswoman Allison Scott-Majure said water testing has not yet been performed in San Juan County. The department will provide free water testing from 10 a.m. to noon Monday at the San Juan County Sheriff's Office substation in Lee Acres, 21 County Road 5500 in Farmington.

The shower facilities at the McGee Park Convention Center and National Guard Armory in Farmington will open at 9 a.m. Monday. To use the McGee Park shower facilities, stop by the sheriff's office substation and ask for a shower pass.


• Bloomfield Fire Station, 911 N. First St. Open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.

• Farmington Fire Station No. 6, 3101 W. Main St. Open from 6 to 7 p.m. Monday throughout Friday.

• Sycamore Park Community Center, 1051 Sycamore St., Farmington. Open from 6 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

• Center Point Fire Station No. 1, 16 County Road 2755. Open 6 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

• Flora Vista Fire Station No. 1, 2 County Road 3275. Open 6 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

• Valley Fire Station No. 4, 4 County Road 6200. Open 6 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.