Navajo Nation Northern Agency chapters issue emergency declarations

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Chapters in the Navajo Nation's Northern Agency have started issuing emergency declarations after toxic mine waste flowed down the San Juan River through tribal land.

On Saturday, the plume — carrying metals including lead and cadmium from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo. — entered the San Juan River at the confluence with the Animas River in Farmington.

The San Juan River travels west through the Navajo Nation and converges with the Colorado River at Lake Powell in southeastern Utah. For the chapter communities near the San Juan River, it is the main source of water for crops and livestock.

On Sunday, the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management voted 4-0 to declare a state of emergency on the Navajo Nation in response to the spill. President Russell Begaye had not signed the declaration as of Monday evening, said the president's spokesman, Rick Abasta. He said the president and vice president have been traveling.

Begaye and Nez, along with Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch, signed an executive order entitled, "Declaration for State of Emergency," on Saturday.

According to tribal law, the commission can declare a state of emergency in concurrence with the president. A declaration helps the tribe seek help from federal, state, tribal, local and private agencies.

So far, the Upper Fruitland, Nenahnezad, San Juan and Shiprock chapters have issued either declarations or resolutions calling for a state of emergency within their boundaries.

San Juan Chapter President Rick Nez said at Sunday's chapter meeting that residents are continuing to ask questions about the condition of the river. The chapter membership passed a declaration of emergency in a vote of 42 in favor and zero opposed.

Because San Juan Chapter is certified as a local governance entity under the tribe's Division of Community Development, members can issue a declaration on their own, Nez said.

"It is necessary for all chapters along the San Juan River to pass a resolution declaring an emergency," he said.

Upper Fruitland, also local governance certified, issued a declaration of emergency on Sunday. That declaration states it is one of several tribal communities that depend on the river for potable water, farming, ranching and other domestic needs. That causes "an extreme concern with any acute and chronic exposure consequences," according to the declaration.

Juanita Begay, secretary/treasurer at Nenahnezad Chapter, said chapter members passed a resolution to declare an emergency on Sunday. They also approved a second resolution in support of President Begaye's statement to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has taken responsibility for the spill.

The president announced the tribe's intent to sue during a community meeting Saturday at Shiprock Chapter.

"They are not going to get away with this," Begaye said in a press release from his office.

Shiprock Chapter has issued three resolutions declaring an emergency, requesting action before the United Nations and expressing appreciation for tribal leaders and the incident command team.

On Monday afternoon, Tsé Daa K'aan Chapter Manager Anita Hayes said a resolution to declare an emergency was expected to be presented to chapter members in a meeting Monday evening.

Staff at the Gadii'ahi-Tokoi Chapter house said the chapter had not issued an emergency resolution or declaration as of Monday.

Last week, the tribe issued a precautionary notice for the San Juan River, stating the spill had not affected drinking water in the Beclabito, Gadii'ahi, Nenahnezad, San Juan, Shiprock, Tsé Daa K'aan and Upper Fruitland chapters.

Still, Josephine Barney, a member of the growth and development team with UnitedHealthcare, delivered 120 cases of bottled water to the Shiprock Chapter house on Monday.

"We're trying to, overall, help the communities in every area possible, as long as they're in New Mexico," Barney said.

Also on Monday, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority reminded residents in communities south of Shiprock that their water service is not connected to the San Juan River. Water wells in Sanostee, Sheep Springs and Two Grey Hills, as well as those south of Shiprock, are deep ground water wells, the release states.

NTUA placed two wells in Montezuma Creek, Utah, off line because both are in close proximity to the San Juan River. The water treatment plant in Mexican Hat, Utah, is shut down until further notice.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.