Study will focus on Gold King Mine spill effect

Noel Lyn Smith
The confluence of the Animas River, at left, and the San Juan River, right, is pictured Aug. 8 as a plume of orange water contaminated with mine waste flows through Farmington after the Gold King Mine spill.

FARMINGTON — Researchers from the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University will share information this weekend about a study that will focus on three Navajo Nation communities affected by the Gold King Mine spill.

More than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater were discharged on Aug. 5 from the mine north of Silverton, Colo., into the Animas River. The plume then flowed into the San Juan River, which runs through the northern portion of the Navajo Nation.

At a community listening session on Sunday in Upper Fruitland, members of the research team will explain the intention of the study and how data will be collected.

The study will focus on the communities of Upper Fruitland and Shiprock and Aneth, Utah, said Karletta Chief, principal investigator for the team. The communities were selected based on the residents' use of water from the San Juan River and their responses to the spill, Chief said.

She explained Upper Fruitland was chosen because it was the first community on the Navajo Nation exposed to the toxic metals in the river water. Shiprock was selected because the chapter membership opposed the delivery of river water by the tribe's irrigation system. The team also looked at Aneth because it is located farther downstream from the spill.

The study has three goals, Chief said. The first is to assess changes in sediment, agriculture, soil, river and well water in the three chosen communities.

Chief said team members collected the first round of water samples late last year and are planning to do more collecting in March.

The other goals are to determine the differences in toxic metal exposure among the communities and the association between the perception of risk and actual risk from the mine spill.

The researchers are partnering with the Navajo Community Health Representatives program to recruit 30 households in each community to participate in the study.

The community health representatives will assist in collecting residents' blood and urine samples, which will be tested for lead and arsenic levels.

The team is also developing focus groups in each community to gather further information. Chief said the identity of participants will be confidential.

The community listening session will start at 9 a.m. Sunday at the Upper Fruitland Chapter house.

For more information, contact Chief at 520-222-9801 or

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.