Udall visits farmers, listens to spill impact

Noel Lyn Smith

SHIPROCK — More than a year after the Gold King Mine spill, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall visited a Shiprock couple today to see how their lives have been changed by the environmental disaster.

Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie, left, talks with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall  Friday during a visit to Earl and Cheryle Yazzie's farm in Shiprock.

Earl and Cheryle Yazzie met with Udall and Navajo Nation officials under a tent set up in their field that once grew rows of corn, melons, squash. The area now sits barren because the Yazzies decided not to plant any crops this year. They remain concerned about river water contamination from the Aug. 5, 2015, spill that released more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater.

Prior to the spill, Earl said he looked forward to passing the land onto his grandchildren, but he worries about the quality of the land if he uses water from the San Juan River for irrigation.

"Since this spill happened, it hurts us — mentally, emotionally, physically. We could have been out here with all these crops. …It bothers me every day to see my field like this. I enjoy farming," Earl said.

Rather than the usual site of crops, Cheryle said when she looks out the window these days, she sees tumbleweeds when the wind carries them across the field.

Cheryle Yazzie holds up jars containing corn pollen during a meeting with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall Friday at her home in Shiprock.

Also at stake is the tádídíín, which is the corn pollen the couple collects from their field to use in ceremonies and prayers, Cheryle said. She placed two half-empty jars of tádídíín in front of Udall and explained the corn pollen was collected prior to the mine spill. The Yazzies say they are concerned about the supply of the pollen ending.

"It's scary because it's getting down to this level," Cheryle said.

Earl said he and his wife filed for compensation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency more than a year ago.

"It would be nice to be compensated. It would help us get back on our feet and not worry about the whole thing," Cheryle said.

Joining Udall were Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez and Navajo Nation Council Delegates Tom Chee and Amber Kanazbah Crotty.

Before giving an update about the measures federal lawmakers have taken to address the mine spill, Udall said he appreciated the Yazzies for sharing their experience.

"It's heartbreaking hearing you tell your story of what has happened with the land, your inability to now have crops, your difficulty in the pollen going down," Udall said.

Udall said a "united front" has formed between federal and tribal lawmakers to address the mine spill issues.

Earl Yazzie wipes away tears while talking to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall about the effects the Gold King Mine spill had on his farm during a meeting Friday at his home in Shiprock.

During his conversation with the Yazzies, Udall cited an amendment to a water resources bill that calls for expediting federal reimbursements to farmers for expenses incurred during the mine spill.

Udall said although EPA Administer Gina McCarthy has admitted the agency caused the spill, compensation will not reach claimants until a liability finding in the agency is determined.

"It's been way too long. We're not accepting it. We're continuing to push, but I wanted you to know that," Udall said.

On Sept. 9, the EPA added Colorado's Bonita Peak Mining District, which includes the Gold King Mine site, to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites.

Udall called the action a success while Begaye praised the district's inclusion on the list. The Navajo president then stressed the need for the compensation of farmers.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, second from left, and Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye visit Earl and Cheryle Yazzie's farm Friday in Shiprock.

"The Superfund listing is a big plus, but it is shameful the farmers have not been reimbursed. It is totally unacceptable," Begaye said.

He added the tribe continues to advocate for establishing a facility on the Navajo Nation where on-site water monitoring can be conducted.

Udall said there is a push to have money provided to the tribe and to New Mexico for water monitoring.

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