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'It Hit Us Hard': Navajo Nation In New Mexico Still Suffering From Mine Spill

By Rick Sallinger

SHIPROCK, N.M. (CBS4) - Shiprock, a volcanic plume frozen in time, is sacred to the Navajo people who live there. So too is the water that flows through this land. Last August that water, which brings life, brought trouble.

Shiprock, New Mexico (credit: CBS)

Millions of gallons of contamination from heavy metals flowed from the Animas River in Colorado into the San Juan River in New Mexico, threatening their economy and their spiritual way of life.

Joe Ben Jr. is a farmer and representative to the Navajo Nation board. He walked with CBS4 Investigator Rick Sallinger through corn stalks in a field.

"This corn should normally be higher than 6 feet, it's about 4 feet," Ben said.

Joe Ben Jr. is interviewed by CBS4's Rick Sallinger (credit: CBS)

With sadness he told of how they shut off the irrigation water when they heard the toxic plume was coming and still haven't turned it back on. Some 550 indigenous Navajo farmers in the region have felt the impact. Ben says farming is an art in their culture for those who live off the land.

Among them is Earl Yazzie and his family. He can only bundle up what remains of what might have been a bountiful harvest. The mine spill took a toll on his farm. He estimates the loss at $10,000.

"It hurt me hard, my wife too, my family. It hit us hard. It made us shed tears," Yazzie said.

Earl Yazzie
Earl Yazzie tends to his crops (credit: CBS)

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency attempted to provide an emergency water supply for the Navajos but the barrels of water were rejected because it was believed they had been previously used for oil.

Karen Hamilton, the acting director for the EPA Ecosystem Protection Program for the region told CBS4, "I know that that occurred but we did analysis and we determined they met all standards for irrigation."

Joe Ben Jr. looks over the San Juan River (credit: CBS)

The San Juan River remains murky, but metal concentrations have returned to previous levels, according the federal government. The Navajos insist that is not acceptable. The EPA has told them that it is safe to use the water from the river for their crops, but they don't trust them, so the irrigation canal remains shut down. It is as dry as the dust that fills the lifeline to the fields. They may let the water flow come spring but shut it down if storms disturb the sediment below. That, Ben feels is the real threat.

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"We'll be looking at the water quality before and after the spring runoff," Hamilton said.

Irrigation Canal Navajo Nation
A dry irrigation canal (credit: CBS)

She said it will be one part of 29 different sampling locations. Each location will examine multiple parameters in water and sediment and provide resources to state and tribal partners.

Staring into the San Juan River, Ben said he fears a lasting impact from what the Colorado waters have brought. He wants the Navajos of the Shiprock chapter to be able to perform their own independent water quality tests. The EPA says it will provide the resources to do just that.

CBS4's Rick Sallinger is a Peabody award winning reporter who has been with the station more than two decades doing hard news and investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter @ricksallinger.

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