FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The quality of San Juan River water on the Navajo Nation has returned to what it was before a spill at a Colorado gold mine sent toxic sludge into the waterway, federal and tribal officials said Thursday.
The testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency along with that of the Navajo EPA prompted tribal President Russell Begaye to consider lifting an advisory against using the river to water crops. No decision had been made as of Thursday evening.
Begaye has said he would not advise hundreds of farmers on the Navajo Nation to do so until the tribe's own Environmental Protection Agency determined the river water is safe. Officials from the tribe's EPA told a crowd at a meeting Thursday in Shiprock, New Mexico, that the water meets tribal standards for irrigation but did not disclose any specific results, citing a possible lawsuit against the federal government.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said testing of surface water collected over a week in Hogback, New Mexico, showed water quality at the same levels as those measured before the mine waste reached the reservation. The agency has taken full responsibility for the Aug. 5 spill at the Gold King Mine.
Begaye and other tribal officials talked with farmers Thursday about flushing irrigation canals and possibly opening them up this weekend. The U.S. EPA said it will provide technical assistance.
Hundreds of Navajos farm along the San Juan River grow squash, melons, corn and other crops to sustain their families and to sell at roadside stands and a tribal fair in October in Shiprock.
After the spill, federal agencies, including the EPA and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, arranged for water to be hauled to tribal communities and hay to be delivered for livestock.
Not all the water has been welcomed.
Shiprock farm board member Joe Ben Jr. complained that water coming from tanks delivered by an EPA contractor contained oil and didn't smell right.
Begaye and Navajo Attorney General Ethel Branch went to Shiprock to look at the tanks a day after farmers voted to reject the water. Branch and Begaye placed their hands inside the area where hoses hook up to the tanks, and their hands came out partially black, according to a video the president's office posted on its Facebook page.
"That is clearly oil," Branch said. "We don't trust the EPA to be here. They need to get out of our nation, send the dollars directly here. Let us take care of these issues ourselves because we care about the health and welfare of our people."
Tribal spokesman Mihio Manus said tribal officials were testing the water from three of the tanks that were being held by tribal police.
The EPA said it would provide an alternate water source from within the reservation but didn't directly address questions regarding the holding tanks. One EPA contractor, Triple S Trucking, said the tanks were cleaned before being delivered to the reservation.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Begaye spoke Wednesday about water quality in the river and agreed to have EPA cease water deliveries Friday for agricultural use on the reservation, the EPA and Manus said. The agency said it would work with the Navajo Nation on a monitoring plan for the river.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Crotty and Ben said they are concerned about reintroducing San Juan River to the irrigation canals without knowing more about the impact to the soil. Crotty said farmers already are having trouble selling crops from the area.
Said Ben: "The testing that was done was surface testing, no subsurface testing, also sediment testing. And never any information about the long-term and short-term effects of these toxins in our water."
Messages left with farm board members in Hogback and Cudeii, two other tribal communities where farmers rely on river water, weren't immediately returned.
New Mexico environment officials said Thursday they are planning another water-testing fair for residents next week and the results from previous tests have been mailed to about 570 private well owners.
Those tests didn't focus on heavy metals, but officials said the results of more extensive testing of more than 100 wells in the Animas valley will be released by the EPA in the coming weeks.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.