To Navajo people, the San Juan River is sacred.
For trust in the river to be restored, the people need to hear a confident message from their leaders that the water is safe, said Venaya Yazzie, a Navajo artist who organized shows around the Gold King Mine spill.
Karletta Chief, a Navajo assistant professor at the University of Arizona, has helped fill that role, Yazzie said.
“For me, she is the leader of our nation, as far as the spill goes ... I feel they have confidence in her, more than their own government,” Yazzie said.
Chief was visiting the Navajo Nation to give a talk about mining and climate change when the tribe found out about the Gold King Mine spill.
In the year since, Chief and her team have worked with Navajo communities, with a particular focus on the Shiprock, Upper Fruitland and Aneth chapters, to understand how the metals in the river may affect their health and how it damaged their perceptions of the river.
“We focused in on the short-term exposure because that was a question the people were really concerned about: ‘What is the risk of using the river?’” Chief said.
After numerous meetings with people, held in Navajo and English, the researchers found people could be exposed to heavy metal contaminates in 40 ways. Some exposure paths were specific to their lifestyle, such as using plants near the river for medicinal purposes. The potential exposure extends beyond the recreational exposure the Environmental Protection Agency had considered, Chief said.
To assess risk, the EPA assumed an adult or child was exposed to river sediment and drinking river water and sediment over 64 days per year over many years – 10 years for a child and 20 years for an adult.
“If the dose is not exceeded, we would not expect any harmful effects,” said Dan Wall of the EPA.
The University of Arizona researchers say not enough information has been gathered to say what the health impacts will be, and they don’t expect to deliver those result for nine months to a year.
They started collecting soil and river samples in November with the help of volunteers before receiving a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant in March. They still need to collect urine and blood samples to see if people have a harmful level of lead or arsenic in their bodies.
“That will give us an idea if it makes sense to monitor long term,” said Paloma Beamer, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who is working on the study.
The data will allow researchers to answer the communities’ questions directly.
These are elements that have been extensively studied and so there is baseline data they can use for comparison, she said.
The researchers will take swabs from inside homes and gather information about residents’ diet to see if the lead and arsenic may come from other sources. For example, the coal some residents’ burn for heat can give off arsenic.
They also expect to take samples from sheep, corn, soil and river and tap water to assess the risk.
“We’re looking for lead and arsenic in everything, to trace the different ways it’s moving through the environment,” Beamer said.
They will use the data and information collected from the people to model what the exposure could be, so they can factor in activities that people are not doing anymore because they changed their habits, Paloma said.
The researchers received permission from the Navajo Nation government to do the study, but it was community members that got it rolling.
At focus groups at the chapter houses in Upper Fruitland, Shiprock, New Mexico, and Aneth, Utah, the researchers found that Navajo people distrust outside researchers.
“The history of environmental abuse has caused this distrust of other people’s information,” said Rebecca Clausen, an environmental sociologist at Fort Lewis College, who helped with the focus groups.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the federal government drastically reduced the animal herds of the reservation. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the federal government mined millions of tons of uranium, leaving behind radiation in homes and drinking sources.
So the Gold King Mine spill is just one piece of widespread environmental degradation, she said.
In the focus groups, people were angry, sad and disappointed.
“It went beyond the water being contaminated, it went to how they view that river in terms of their beliefs and that was disrupted,” Chief said.
When this portion of the study is finished, Chief plans a three-year study, which is funded by a $600,000 grant.
“It will be really a discussion with the community where they want to go next.” Chief said.