Tribe releases data on toxic spill damages

Navajo farmers seek new water source for irrigation

Steve Garrison
Gilbert Harrison Sr., a farm board official for the Gadii'ahi-Tokoi Chapter and president of the San Juan River Farm Board, speaks Monday about losses resulting from the Gold King Mine spill during a public meeting at the Shiprock Chapter house.

SHIPROCK — The Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture on Monday released a preliminary survey of damages from the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill.

The department estimated farmers from the Shiprock and Tsé Daa K'aan chapters will suffer a total of $569,700 in damages over the next five years as a result of the spill, which released millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers. Shiprock and Tsé Daa K'aan ranchers are expected to lose $103,200 during that same period, according to data released by the department.

Charmaine Hosteen, an extension agent with the agriculture department, said the estimates are based on visits by department staff to farms in the two chapters. She said, however, the data is incomplete and has not yet been finalized.

Only 48 of 132 farms from the Tsé Daa K'aan Chapter were surveyed by employees, according to the data. In the Shiprock Chapter, 91 of 426 farms were surveyed for damages.

Hosteen said damages have not yet been assessed for the Upper Fruitland, Nenahnezad and San Juan chapters. She said a new survey will be conducted, but a date has not yet been set.

The data was presented Monday in a public meeting hosted at the Shiprock Chapter House by tribal officials from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture.

At the meeting, Navajo farmers and ranchers impacted by the spill hammered tribal officials with complaints that centered on the issue of local control.

Shiprock resident Sammy Ahkeah said at the meeting that local officials lost control over decision-making after contractors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently caused a blowout at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo.

"When the disaster does come, we have decisions that are made by the political persons up in Window Rock, that have no knowledge about farming, no knowledge about anything," Ahkeah said. "That needs to stop."

The blowout caused more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater to discharge into the Upper Animas River watershed, which includes the San Juan River, the primary source of water for hundreds of Navajo farmers and ranchers.

Residents listen on Monday during a public meeting at the Shiprock Chapter House about losses resulting from the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill.

Shiprock Chapter House Farm Board representative Joe Ben Jr. said tribal officials should cede control of the irrigation head gate near the Tsé Daa K'aan Chapter House to local farmers. The head gate controls San Juan River waterflow into an irrigation canal that services farmers and ranchers throughout the region.

Ben said local farmers could act quicker than Navajo Nation officials to close the head gate in case of an emergency.

San Juan River Farm Board President Gilbert Harrison Sr. said tribal officials should consider diverting water from Navajo Dam that is intended for Navajo Agricultural Products Industry into the irrigation canal near Tsé Daa K'aan Chapter House.

Harrison said a pipeline from Navajo Dam supplies NAPI with water to irrigate 100,000 acres of land, but the tribal enterprise currently only irrigates approximately 70,000 acres of land.

Harrison said the Navajo Nation should conduct a feasibility study to determine whether that unused water could be diverted into the irrigation canal, reducing local farmers' reliance on the San Juan River.

Harrison said the idea has been discussed, but the legal and environmental ramifications of the plan need to be examined.

Ben said at the meeting that he also supported diverting Navajo Dam water.

Ahkeah asked at Monday's meeting why the Navajo Nation EPA has not released the results of water and soil testing performed along the San Juan River.

Donald Benn, acting executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, speaks on Monday about losses from the Gold King Mine spill during a public meeting at the Shiprock Chapter House.

Donald Benn, acting executive director of the tribal EPA, said the agency was already performing water and soil testing before the Aug. 5 spill and plans to continue monitoring conditions for at least a year.

But he said his agency was not responsible for releasing the results.

"Our job as the water quality program for the Navajo Nation is to provide recommendations for the Navajo Nation president," he said. "That is our job. What they do with the data is a different level of decision-making."

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.