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Officials issued public notice about the leak 10 days after it was discovered at the behest of the EPA

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SHIPROCK — Work is underway to replace a pipeline that runs from a lift station operated by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to its wastewater treatment system in Shiprock.

Since the leak was discovered on Dec. 6, NTUA and its contractors have been working to replace a 12-inch cast iron pipe, which was installed in 1963, with a 12-inch high-density polyethylene pipe.

Gregory Bahe is the operations supervisor for water and wastewater in the engineering, construction and operations division at NTUA. He said today that crew members are boring 27 feet below the surface to install a 3,000-foot pipe that will travel west of the lift station and underneath the San Juan River to connect to the wastewater treatment system.

Bahe said officials expect the repairs to be complete by Dec. 31.

The leak was noticed after an operator detected an odor on Dec. 6 during a routine check of the lift station, Bahe said.

He added progress has been slow because the directional bore is taking place 27 feet below the surface and underneath the river.

"It's like digging in a bowl of marbles," Bahe said.

There are two small ponds that are collecting wastewater from the leak, and one pond is slowly releasing into the river.

In response, NTUA has been conducting river water sampling for E.coli bacteria in three locations near the site.

Samples are collected upstream near the U.S. Highway 64 bridge and then 200 yards downstream, as well as an additional 1,800 yards downstream from the leak.

Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for NTUA, said samples are collected daily and tested in the tribal entity's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-certified laboratory and results are released the next day.

"The samples upstream, which is the normal condition of the river, are almost exactly the same as those samples that are downstream. So the volume of the flow in the river is diluting anything that is getting into the river very, very quickly," Kontz said.

NTUA has previously stated that drinking water distributed to the region comes from the city of Farmington system.

Kontz said the leak started due to the age of the pipe, and there were plans to replace it after funding was secured.

"Most of the original towns — like Kayenta, Shiprock, Fort Defiance — a lot of those have old infrastructure that was constructed prior to NTUA existence," Kontz said.

A public notice about the leak was not released until 10 days after its start and after NTUA was advised by the U.S. EPA to issue the announcement.

In response to questions about the delay in notifying the public, Kontz said personnel were completing an assessment to determine the cause and exact location. He said the U.S. EPA and Navajo Nation EPA were notified on Dec. 7.

"We were trying to determine the volume of the leak because it is not a complete break," he said, adding solid waste is not being released.

He added: "We were trying to identify the impact of it and after consultation with the U.S. EPA, that's when they directed us to get the notice out. That's why there was a gap."

A statement from EPA Region 9 to The Daily Time states the agency continues to receive daily updates about the tribal enterprise's work to repair the leak and monitor the river for impacts.

"NTUA is responsible for the repair, sampling and clean-up. EPA continues to coordinate with both the NTUA and Navajo Nation EPA," according to the statement.

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

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