Navajo Nation confiscates water tanks after mine spill

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye on Wednesday ordered tribal police to confiscate water tanks delivered to Shiprock that were intended to hold water that residents could use to irrigate crops and water livestock.

Tribal officials were concerned about what they said was contamination in the tanks.

The tanks were needed after more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater was accidentally released Aug. 5 from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo., into the Animas and San Juan rivers. Officials along the rivers, including those with the Navajo Nation, had closed access to the rivers and warned against using the water for any purpose. Most restrictions had been lifted by Wednesday, but Nation officials were still waiting for testing results.

Begaye said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that he made his decision to confiscate the tanks after visiting three tank sites and after discussing the situation with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, even though they assured him the tanks were suitable to store water.

The president said during his inspection, he filled a cup with water from one of the tanks then noticed unknown material floating in the water.

"So what I was told was a complete lie," Begaye said, adding that the tanks will be kept as evidence and will not be hauled from the Navajo Nation.

In the meantime, the president said new tanks will be delivered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Navajo Region in cooperation with the EPA. He said the EPA agreed to use water from Navajo Agricultural Products Industry rather than from the city of Bloomfield, which had been supplying water.

The president's decision comes after Shiprock Chapter's farm board member, Joe Ben Jr., complained about the condition of 11 tanks delivered to the chapter by Triple S Trucking.

Jason Sandel, executive vice president of Triple S Trucking, said the company was hired by Environmental Quality Management on behalf of the EPA, to deliver the tanks.

"We are doing the job that we were hired to do and in the best of our ability," Sandel said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

He explained that each tank holds 16,800 gallons and said they are being used to hold non-potable water.

Non-potable water is meant to be used for irrigation and watering livestock but not for drinking.

Sandel said since the mine spill, the company hauled tanks to areas from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to the Navajo Nation, including deliveries to Aztec and Kirtland.

"We've been delivering tanks all over the county without complaint," he said.

On Tuesday, Ben said Triple S Trucking delivered and placed the tanks at Chief Hill, Salt Wash, Area 3 East, Area 3 West, the Northern Navajo Nation Fairgrounds, and near the chapter house.

He alleges the tanks are not suitable for irrigation or livestock because he noticed water from the tanks was brown and had a noticeable film and odor.

"We are seasoned farmers. We know what we are talking about. We grew up playing in the mud," Ben said while examining a pool of water at the base of one of the tanks at Area 3 East. The tank was labeled with signs stating, "Non Potable Water" and "Caution: Do not use until further notice." The advisory not to use the water was posted by Nation officials.

Rusty Harris-Bishop, a public information officer in the Joint Information Center in Durango, Colo., said in a statement on Wednesday that following the closure of the San Juan River by the Navajo Nation, the EPA's Region 9 worked to provide alternative agricultural and livestock water supplies for community members in Shiprock.

Harris-Bishop explained the water distributed by the EPA was provided by the city of Bloomfield's utility company and met all applicable federal and state water quality standards.

The tanks were used for "the exclusive distribution of non-potable water" and the EPA will comply with the tribe's request to use a water source permitted on the Navajo Nation, he wrote.

In a follow up call on Wednesday morning, Harris-Bishop said 13 tanks were delivered to the chapters of Shiprock, Upper Fruitland and Gadii'ahi-Tokoi. He did not provide further details and said the EPA was working on a press release about the issue.

On Wednesday afternoon, a video featuring the tribe's attorney general, Ethel Branch, was posted on the president's Facebook page.

In the video, Branch states that the administration had a meeting on Monday with an EPA official who said there was no issue with the tanks.

"We've had repeated conversations with this EPA official, he's repeatedly confirmed these tanks are fine," she said.

Branch goes on to explain that the president inspected one of the tanks on Wednesday.

She then holds a white cup containing yellowish water up to the camera and says, "You can see the little floating things. If you take those out and you rub them it streaks. It's clearly oil."

She explains that she and Begaye, who stood next to her, placed their hands on a portion of the tank where water comes out and their hands were darkened.

"That is clearly oil. There's oil in these tanks. We don't trust the EPA to be here. They need to get out of our nation. Send the dollars directly here, let us take care of these issues ourselves because we care about the health and welfare of our people," Branch said.

With the tribe's irrigation and ditch systems shut down, Mitten Rock residents Byron and Tonita Nelson were using delivered water to irrigate their squash, melons and corn, which they were growing on 11.8 acres they lease in Shiprock.

The couple drove to Farmington on Monday and purchased a large plastic water tank, a gas powered pump, a hose and fuel. After filling the tank with non-potable water from the station set up by the BIA Navajo Region at the Shiprock rodeo grounds, they pumped the water to start irrigating a field on Tuesday.

"We're trying to keep our plants alive. ...It's a way of life for us. It's what we've learned," Byron said.

"It gave us a lot of things," Tonita said while looking at the plants.

She said during a recent sale, some customers were skeptical about purchasing the produce and asked if it came from contaminated plants.

After answering their questions, she said, "Slowly, they'll trust us then they'll buy."

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.