Rewind: Couple resumes life after mine spill
Editor's note: The Daily Times' annual “Rewind” series revisits stories we have reported on over the past year. To read more “Rewind” stories, go to daily-times.com.
SHIPROCK – Rows of dried corn stalks stand in front of Earl and Cheryle Yazzie's home. On a portion of land where melons grew, a pair of puppies sniffed, then nudged ruined fruit.
Months after the Gold King Mine spill, the couple, like many farmers in San Juan County, continue to worry about the future of their farm.
On Aug. 5, the spill released millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River.
The mustard yellow plume flowed through the Animas into the San Juan River, which flows through the northern region of the Navajo Nation. The Yazzie residence is about a mile north of the river that they have used to irrigate their crops.
“This was an eye opener for everybody,” Earl Yazzie said about the spill and subsequent actions by government officials and residents in response to the spill.
On Wednesday, Yazzie said he wants to see testing results from federal and tribal entities before he decides to again irrigate his farm with San Juan River water.
Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has accepted responsibility for the spill, he said, the agency should be supplying a clean water source and start testing the soil on farms.
The toxic spill received nationwide attention and, as The Daily Times reported on Sept. 9, environmental activist and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich visited the farm while touring the Navajo Nation.
During the visit, Brockovich listened to the Yazzies as they talked about efforts to save their crops and why they opposed resuming irrigation with the suspect river water.
Cheryle Yazzie said she remains angry and disappointed by the response of government officials, especially since it seems no one "can do anything."
“A lot of people, I think, don’t understand the real causalities, the effects of this. Sure, it’s not going to happen this instant, but we’ll see it in a few years,” she said.
At the time of Brockovich’s visit, officials had set up a water tank to irrigate a section of the Yazzie farm. When asked if that effort helped the crops, Earl Yazzie said it helped, but the crops did not mature.
“The whole field was lost. Our crops were a loss. It really affected me,” Yazzie said.
Cheryle Yazzie recalled previous seasons when people would visit the farm to buy produce. The couple estimate they suffered a financial loss of more than $10,000.
Earl Yazzie is a lifelong resident of this town and grew up on a farm, learning how to work the ground from his parents and grandparents.
“To see this actually happening, it made me think about things. I thought, 'This is going to destroy our farm life,'” he said.
When asked if they will be planting crops during the upcoming season, Cheryle Yazzie said she is opposed to that if the river water is going to be the source of irrigation for the crops.
“We don’t want that water on our land,” she said, adding she remains proud of the Shiprock residents who opposed reopening the irrigation canal that delivers river water to the farms.
The answer is not as easy for Earl Yazzie, who said he would have to evaluate the situation in the spring. He reiterated the need for testing.
An effort by federal lawmakers to address the spill came on Dec. 18 when New Mexico's Democratic U.S. senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-Santa Fe, included a provision to support monitoring efforts in the end-of-year appropriations bill before Congress. That provision directs the EPA to coordinate with states and tribes impacted by the spill to develop a plan for independent monitoring, according to a joint press release from the lawmakers.
It also directs the EPA to provide support for the monitoring efforts of states and tribes.
Udall said in a press release that the provision will help hold the EPA accountable and ensure it keeps its commitment to prioritizing transparency in water quality monitoring.
"If a situation like a flash flood or thunderstorm were to cause contamination in the water once again, we need the EPA making determinations and giving prompt warnings to impacted communities based on the best scientific advice,” Udall said.
Luján was pleased that the provision was included.
“There are serious concerns about the effects that this spill will have on our communities in the months and years to come, and it is critical that there is a coordinated effort to conduct long-term monitoring of the Animas River,” Luján said in the release.
Heinrich acknowledged that families deserve to be compensated for damages incurred because of the spill, and he said he will continue to work on overhauling federal hard rock mining and abandoned mine policies. Mining interests have successfully blocked efforts to update the Mining Act of 1872, which allows mining companies to obtain claims for a small investment and does not require companies to clean up inactive or abandoned mines.
EPA officials and an agency contractor, using taxpayer dollars, were working to clean up the Gold King Mine when they caused the spill.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.