The Navajo Nation was bracing on Saturday for the arrival of a neon-orange, heavy-metals-infused plume of mining wastewater that was flowing toward the San Juan River from the Animas in Colorado.
The plume, unleashed on Wednesday August 5 by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers assessing an entrance of the Gold King Mine in Silverado, Colorado, was flowing at one to two miles per hour, according to the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management. The tainted water reached New Mexico overnight Friday into Saturday and was headed toward the San Juan River, which flows through the Navajo Nation. The torrent is infused with heavy metals including lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum and copper, the EPA told attendees at a community meeting in Durango on August 7.
The tainted water will flow past at least 10 Navajo chapters and hundreds of farmers who rely on the San Juan River, the Navajo Times reported. It will ultimately end up in Lake Powell.
New Mexico officials were taking river samples as a baseline and gearing up to monitor the plume as it passed through. San Juan County officials declared a state of emergency as the Navajo Nation expressed frustration with the level of information it was receiving.
“We are demanding from the U.S. EPA an immediate release of detailed information on the type of contaminants that is flowing into the river from the Gold King Mine,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a statement. “This is an all too familiar story on the lax oversight responsibility of the U.S. government. It is unfortunate that we have to once again tell our people to stay away from the river due to the release of dangerous chemicals into our water.”
The Navajo Nation cautioned residents to prevent their livestock from drinking out of the San Juan River and to refrain from drinking or diverting water from it for their own use, as did San Juan County emergency services.
“State and local officials strongly encourage residents to avoid contact with the contaminated water as well as preventing pets and livestock from coming into contact or drinking from the river,” San Juan County said in a statement posted to Facebook.
The county assured residents that municipal water supplies were safe, since they do not draw from the affected rivers. Officials recommended that residents relying on private wells within the San Juan River floodplain avoid contact with that water as a precaution, pending testing.
U.S. Senator Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, called the wastewater release “of great concern” and called on “all relevant federal agencies to ensure potentially affected areas in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation will get the attention and services they need.”
Promising to keep the lines of communications open, Udall pointed affected residents toward call centers, social media and local government websites as sources of information and assistance. Online, information is being posted to the La Plata County website and the San Juan Basin Health Department's Website.
“We will continue to stay in communication, and my staff and I stand ready to provide assistance to any community or individuals in need,” Udall said in a statement. “The Animas and San Juan rivers are important drinking water sources for New Mexico. I will push for answers to how this incident happened, and I won't rest until we are sure that any possible impacts to the downstream communities or the environment have been addressed to the greatest extent possible."
Begaye on Saturday August 8 issued a public service announcement to his constituents in Navajo.