Navajo farmers in northwestern New Mexico have rejected a water delivery to tribal communities meant to sustain crops after a mine spill, saying the tanks holding the water appear unclean.
The water in about a dozen tanks set up on the reservation was trucked in from Bloomfield, New Mexico — a water supply unaffected by the Aug. 5 leak of toxic waste from the abandoned Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado. The water meets all federal and state water quality standards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.
However, the agency said Tuesday that it will replace the water with a source from within the Navajo Nation.
Farmers and ranchers on the reservation have been advised not to use water from the river until the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency deems it to be safe, but they are struggling to find alternate sources to keep their crops from dying and their livestock from going thirsty. It's not clear when testing of samples drawn from the San Juan River would be complete.
EPA contracted with an Aztec, New Mexico, company to supply water for crops and livestock on the reservation. Jason Sandel, executive vice president of Triple S Trucking, said the tanks and trucks used by the company were cleaned before delivering non-potable water to the reservation. He said crews are looking into a complaint from Shiprock farm board member Joe Ben Jr. about the quality of the water, but they had no reason to believe it was unsafe.
Sandel said the company, which has stored fresh water as well as water from oil and gas wells in the tanks, has not received any other complaints.
Ben said the 450 farmers in the Shiprock area had been anticipating the water delivery that came more than a week after the mine spill. He said he agreed reluctantly to accept the tanks and water even as he sought documentation that the tanks were cleaned.
He said he began to worry about possible soil contamination after noticing some of the water was discolored and had a sheen to it.
Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie said farmers gathered Monday in Shiprock voted to reject any further service from Triple S Trucking and to have the tanks removed from the reservation. He said farmers also requested that he reach out to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for alternate water sources.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said her agency takes full responsibility for the spill that unleashed three million gallons of toxic sludge into tributaries of the San Juan River, which flows across the northern portion of the Navajo Nation. The agency has been supplying hay and water for livestock and agriculture.
Yazzie said further delays of water supplies raise concerns about whether crops will survive.
"I'm sure there are some farmers whose crops are in the danger zone," he said. "You can deny water for only so long, and you can't bring them back."
U.S. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Udall of New Mexico on Tuesday requested that the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hold a hearing on the impact the spill has had on the tribe.
"While the spill appears to be diluted to the point where it is not as visible, the environmental, economic, and cultural cost borne by the Navajo people has yet to be fully understood," they wrote in a letter to committee leadership.