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SHIPROCK — Equipped with needles and collection tubes, staff from the Navajo Veterinary and Livestock Program waited on Wednesday to collect blood samples from livestock to test whether the animals were exposed to heavy metals as a result of the Gold King Mine spill.

This week, the tribal program is providing free blood testing and examinations at the rodeo grounds in Shiprock for cattle and sheep at least 2 years old. The service continues from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today.

The service is open to Navajo ranchers and farmers who have livestock within three miles of the San Juan River and are concerned their animals consumed river water during the Gold King Mine spill. The Aug. 5 spill released more than 3 million gallons of toxic metals into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Navajo Tribal Veterinarian Scott Bender said there have been no reports of livestock becoming sick from river water. Bender added that heavy metals are in the environment and form a basline, which is being checking for irregularities.

"It never hurts to be on the cautious side," he said.

Bender explained the collected blood samples will be sent to a veterinary lab and tested for metals, such as lead, mercury, vanadium and selenium.

Some metals, he said, can be excreted quickly while others become residual in the tissue.

"One thing I do want to stress, we're not saying that the livestock have this issue. We are trying to get a baseline to find out if there is an issue because it is something we've never looked at," Bender said.

As part of the testing, the animal's ear is tagged with an identification device so if another sample is needed, it can be easily found.

"If we find a problem in this first round, then we can actually go back to those animals in six months and see where they stand," Bender said.

Carm Lee is the senior extension agent and a veterinary technician at the Navajo Veterinary Clinic in Shiprock.

She explained testing is completed on 10 percent of a herd, so there is no need for livestock owners to transport each animal.

On Tuesday, four cattle and two sheep, which were transported to the rodeo grounds by employees from the tribe's Ranch Program, were tested and examined, Lee said.

If owners do not have transportation, the agricultural department can provide assistance, Bender said.

Bender added that since Monday agriculture department staff have been conducting field visits and assessments on farms near the river.

"Our whole Department of Agriculture is out visiting ranchers along the San Juan," Bender said.

For now, the assessments are focusing on chapters between the confluence of the Animas and the San Juan rivers and Shiprock because a plume with a high concentration of heavy metals traveled through that area.

In areas west of Mexican Hat, Utah, canyons keep livestock away from the river, Bender said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.

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