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Navajo Nation Farmers Worry About Future Seasons After EPA Spill

Navajo farmers and ranchers
Laurel Morales

Irving Shaggy is worried about his family's 10-acre farm and livestock.

The chemical spill into Colorado’s Animas River has made its way downstream and is now affecting the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Farming Authority has shut off public water intakes and irrigation canals. And that leaves hundreds of Navajo farmers driving long distances to water their crops. 

The Environmental Protection Agency was investigating an old mine near Silverton, Colorado, earlier this month, when it accidentally released 3 million gallons of toxic waste water. Initially, the agency downplayed the incident and provided little information. 

So, Navajo President Russell Begaye traveled to the source of the toxic spill and posted this video on Facebook. In it he stood in front of the still-leaking mine.

"This is the story that was related to us just now," Begaye said. "The person was working the back hoe and trying to block off more of this area but then he saw a spring … and the water burst through here and it went straight down the mountain down here."

The mustard-colored water then flowed downstream to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

Environmental Protection Agency

That’s where rancher Irving Shaggy feeds his family’s livestock. 

"They’ve been growing sudan grass for my cattle and sheep, which is our livelihood," Shaggy said. "We sell the wool we sell the cattle every year."

But Shaggy doesn’t know if his cattle will be contaminated and unsaleable. He fought back angry, tired tears at the disruption of his usual routine.

"I mean I’m upset because every two days I haul water to my livestock," Shaggy said. "And I get it from the river and I irrigate my fields." 

But that changed earlier this month. He now has to make a 70 mile round trip every time he hauls water to his cattle. Shaggy said the EPA isn’t providing enough clean water or enough information. So he and hundreds of other farmers are left to speculate about the rest of the farming and ranching season, and the future. 

"It’s going to be a long struggle," Shaggy said. "The water’s still contaminated and it’s embedded in the mud and the rocks and the tree branches along the river."

This contamination brings up memories of other environmental disasters caused by the federal government. One in particular that Navajo people are talking about is uranium mine contamination -— a decades-long legacy that still affects people on the reservation today. The EPAhas only started in the last seven years to clean up those mines. 

One Navajo farmer aired his frustrations at an EPA meeting at the Shiprock Chapter House late last week. 

"These folks here are hurt," he said. "They’re connected to the land. They’re connected to the water. We can’t be compensated for that. We can’t be compensated for all the prayers that was given to that water of life."

"We are working hard very hard to get this right," said EPA Emergency Responder Randy Nattis.  "I’m frustrated. I know everyone here is frustrated. I haven’t slept. No one has slept since this happened." 

The Navajo said it’s difficult to trust the EPA when agency workers spent much of last week handing out forms to the farmers that would essentially waive their rights to sue the federal government for future damages. 

"The Feds are protecting themselves at the expense of the Navajo people and it is outrageous," said President Begaye in a statement.


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