Navajo farmers: Gold King Mine spill continues to hurt crop sales

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Shiprock resident Bertha Etsitty talks about how the Gold King Mine spill has impacted her ability to sell produce from her farm during a listening session by the New Mexico Environment Department on March 5 at the Shiprock Chapter house.

SHIPROCK — Bertha Etsitty remembers the income she received from selling vegetables and alfalfa grown on her farm here before the Gold King Mine spill occurred.

"We always had money. Our pockets were full. But ever since the spill, we haven't been really farming," she said. "People out on the reservation, they tell us, 'where are your crops from? This watermelon looks good, but where is it coming from?'"

When Etsitty explains that her farm is in Shiprock, buyers refrain from purchasing because they fear it is contaminated with heavy metals released in August 2015 by the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado.

The heavy metals from the spill that was accidentally triggered by contractors working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency flowed into a tributary of the Animas River, then into the San Juan River.

The New Mexico Environment Department heard comments from farmers about challenges they face when selling produce because of stigma from the Gold King Mine spill on March 5 at the Shiprock Chapter house.

The San Juan River supplies water for irrigation canals that service farms in Upper Fruitland, Nenahnezad, San Juan, Hogback, Shiprock and Gadii'ahi.

Etsitty told the New Mexico Environment Department on March 5 that, despite the public being told that levels for heavy metals meet water quality standards set by federal, state and tribal agencies, convincing consumers is challenging. That has caused financial trouble for farmers.

"People ask a lot of questions. They say, 'it's not safe. We don't want to buy from you,'" she said.

The NMED is aware of the stigma around crops grown by water from the Animas and San Juan rivers. Since November, the department has hosted listening sessions to hear from farmers in San Juan County and on the Navajo Nation about the discredit toward the area's agriculture.

Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie speaks in the Navajo language about the purpose of a listening session by the New Mexico Environment Department on March 5 at the Shiprock Chapter house.

"There's no scientific basis. It's a stigma. People saw these images of the yellow river – these shocking images went all over the place. And now, we have three years of scientific data showing crops are safe," NMED chief scientist Dennis McQuillan said.

To counter the misconception, the department will use federal dollars through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act to launch a public relations campaign to restore trust in the region's agricultural community.

Gold King mine spill 'still hurting' New Mexico 4 years later

The NMED is partnering with the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District and the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency on the campaign, which will include advertisements, billboards, flyers and online resources.

Several attendees suggested that tribal officials record announcements for the radio, because they serve as naat'áanii, which means "leader" in the Navajo language.

Shiprock resident Byron Nelson said he deals with criticism when selling produce and suggested issuing certificates to farmers to show their food is safe.

Bill Jackson, center, listens to a comment about stigma surrounding produce grown using water from the San Juan River during a listening session on March 5 at the Shiprock Chapter house. Jackson is an attorney representing New Mexico in its lawsuit regarding the Gold King Mine spill.

"It's our word that's out there and people are having a hard time believing what we're saying," he said.

Nelson, who has been growing corn and squash for 12 years in Shiprock, sells in Gallup and in Kayenta and Tuba City, both in Arizona, but no matter the location, he hears negative comments and misconceptions about the river water.

"Personally, it hurts when somebody comes to your table and makes a smart remark. They have a hard time believing you. I have to show them the callus on my hands from all the work … but still, they make fun of it," Nelson said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist for the New Mexico Environment Department, speaks during the department's listening session on March 5 at the Shiprock Chapter house.