Discussion: Are chapters ready for future emergencies like Gold King spill?
SHIPROCK — As part of an ongoing study about the Gold King Mine spill, community members here were asked to think about ways they can prepare and respond to similar disaster in the future.
The August 2015 spill released millions of gallons of heavy metal contaminants from a closed mine near Silverton, Colo. into the Animas River and eventually the San Juan River.
Today's session was another aspect of the Gold King Mine Spill Diné Exposure Project, a collaboration between the University of Arizona, Tó Bei Nihi Dziil, Northern Arizona University, Diné College, Fort Lewis College and the Navajo Nation Community Health Representatives program, which is focusing on health and environmental impacts of the spill.
Karletta Chief is an associate professor and extension specialist with the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Chief said while the tribe has an entity that addresses such disasters, many chapters are not prepared at the local level.
"This is the start of the conversation," she said.
During the discussion, participants talked about the need for emergency preparedness as well as examining existing plans and steps to take for establishing communication among residents.
Perry Charley, director and senior scientist for the Diné Environmental Institute Research and Outreach at Diné College, said there are chapters that have authorized local emergency response teams but the level of preparedness depends on community interest.
Shiprock resident Tommie Yazzie said obstacles develop when people do not understand the importance of creating, then implementing, such responses.
Another challenge is cost for such services and whether chapters carry the authority to initiate response systems, Yazzie said.
Although a solution was not developed during the session, the group listened to a presentation by Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist for the New Mexico Environment Department, who provided an overview of the state's emergency response system.
Tribal entities are included in the state's all hazard emergency operations plan, he said.
Despite the mine spill affecting multi-jurisdictions, the state, San Juan County and Navajo Nation addressed the situation efficiently, he said.
Chief said the team working on the mine spill exposure project has been working with the tribe to continue examining the spill's effects on communities and the environment.
So far, the project has looked at the environmental impact through soil and water testing in addition to developing focus groups in Upper Fruitland and Shiprock and in Aneth, Utah.
Another aspect is partnering with community health representatives under the Navajo Department of Health to test water, soil and dust in 60 homes and measure lead and arsenic levels in residents.
Results from that health study will be presented by the group in December at the Shiprock Chapter house.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org