Kim Howe, a young farmer in Shiprock, was stricken.
“I had nothing else to do but cry,” she told The Washington Post in a telephone interview.
Howe relies on the town irrigation system to water her eight acres of corn, alfalfa and assorted other vegetables, and her income depends on trading her harvest at the end of the summer.
So she went to the San Juan to pray, then waited.
On Sunday it arrived: a slow-moving, copper-colored stain, less lurid than the mustard-yellow sludge that contaminated rivers farther north, but still “heartbreaking to see,” Howe said.
All along the three affected waterways — Cement Creek, where the waste was spilled, Colorado’s Animas River and the San Juan — communities have clamored for explanations from the Environmental Protection Agency about the cause and possible consequences of the spill. The agency had accidentally unleashed three million gallons of sludge laden with arsenic, lead and other heavy metals while inspecting the abandoned Gold King Mine high in the western San Juan Mountains.
At a news conference in Washington Tuesday, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy took responsibility for the spill.
She will be traveling to Colorado on Wednesday to survey the damage.
So far the agency says it hasn’t heard any negative health reports from the site of the spill, and area animals seem to be doing okay. When officials placed cages full of more than 100 fish directly in the mustard-stained river, all but one of them survived. Wild birds with stains on their wings were still able to fly, and no fish die-offs have been reported.
Still, EPA officials have been tight lipped about the exact level of toxins and their possible health threats. They say they need more time to test the water and analyze their results, though preliminary results are promising.
That hasn’t quelled questions and frustrations from people in the affected area. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye declared a state of emergency Saturday and pledged to sue the EPA to make it pay for its mistake.
“At this point, how long are we going to continue to truck in water? Who’s going to pick up the tab? Are we going to hold these people accountable? I want answers from the EPA, but they’re nowhere to be found,” David Filfred, a Navajo Nation council delegate, told the Associated Press Tuesday. “This is a lifeline. This is our culture. This is who we are.”
Navajo Nation covers a 25,000 square mile swath of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah (an area larger than the entire state of West Virginia), including the entire affected area of the San Juan River. Farming in the area has come nearly to a standstill as intake systems from the river are shut off and water use restricted to drinking and food.
“You can’t describe the extent of hurt that we’ve been thrown into,” farmer Earl Yazzie, who leads the nation’s Shiprock chapter, told the Navajo Times.
“We had plans. We were going go make steamed corn and kneel down bread. Now this happens,” his wife, Cheryle, added. “Looks like we aren’t gonna have our steamed corn. You know what they say, ‘you never make plans.’”
“The dangers in the short-term and the long-term are unknown because the EPA has not been communicating,” she said. “… Right now we have people preparing for a lawsuit [against the EPA], if that is what we need to do.”
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) offered a more measured critique, saying that while the incident was “unacceptable,” the EPA’s intentions were good.
The agency was attempting to inspect the Gold King mine, which hasn’t been operational since 1923, when a plug failed last Wednesday and unleashed the stream of sludge. The mine was one of several that have been leaching acid and other toxins into waterways for years, killing all the local fish, and the EPA has previously considered designating the area a “Superfund” site.
But residents resisted the intervention, and instead the agency came to an agreement that let local officials direct the cleanup effort. They were only a few weeks into the project when the plug failed, unleashing millions of gallons of wastewater and a new stream of headaches for the EPA.
As of Wednesday, the plume continues to move along the San Juan and is expected to reach Arizona’s Lake Powell later this week. From there, the water will flow into the Colorado River, which supplies drinking water Las Vegas, Los Angeles and much of the Southwest.
But the threat to Lake Powell and the Colorado seems minimal, officials said. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Justyn Liff said the 3 million gallon spill was about the size of 4½ Olympic-sized pools. By contrast, Lake Powell contains 4.2 trillion gallons of water, comparable to 6.4 million Olympic-sized pools.
Along the Animas and San Juan, the EPA has said that the river flows too quickly for the contaminants to cause an immediate health threat, and heavy metals that will sink to the bottom of the waterways will likely be diluted over time.
In the meantime, Howe says she’ll watch the news with her breath held, hoping for reports that the river is safe or rain is on the way.
“We really depend on water here,” she said. “It impacts our livestock, our corn. Everything around us that’s green. It’s just our whole culture.”