On August 5th an environmental crew coordinated by the EPA set out to pump and treat contaminated wastewater at the defunct Gold King Mine in Colorado. Instead, they accidentally sprung an enormous leak and three million gallons of water laden with toxic heavy metals flooded into the Animas River. Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah have all been impacted by the plume of contaminated water and its devastating effects. Here are some of our concerns for the communities affected by it:
- Shortly after the spill, lead levels in the water were 12,000 times higher than normal. While the levels have certainly dropped, these waters supply drinking water to several surrounding cities, as well as irrigation and livestock water for nearby farms. And lead is just one of the many heavy metals released. The wastewater also contained extremely high levels of carcinogenic arsenic, cadmium, beryllium and mercury.
- While lead causes health risks for everyone, Hispanic children are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white children to have elevated blood lead levels that can lead to permanent brain and behavior impacts.
- While the EPA and local governments have reopened access to the water, the long-term effects of this spill, such as the ramifications of lost crop yields and the toxic sediment that remains in the river, is unknown. Navajo Nation farmers and ranchers haven’t been able to water fields or horses since the spill and face significant economic hardships.
- Even before the spill, the Animas River was polluted by mining practices and fish populations were in decline. During a brief period in the 90s, water quality improved with a water treatment facility, helping fish populations, but it was shut down. There are some root causes for the problems with the Animas River, such as an outdated law from 1874, and they must be addressed.
- There are an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines across the country just like Gold King, and most are found in states like Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado—home to large Latino populations, 87% of whom cite clean air, clean water and environment as to why they choose to live in the west. Something significant must be done to prevent further harm to our lands and our children from contaminated mines.
In order to accelerate mine clean-ups, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, has introduced a bill in the House that would establish an 8 percent royalty on new mines and a 4 percent royalty on existing mines, and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, will introduce similar legislation in the Senate next month. HECHO will be voicing our support as these bills move forward and encouraging our community to speak up. Hispanics represent about 17% of the U.S. population and are the nation’s largest ethnic or race minority-- our voices should be heard loud and clear throughout the halls of Congress.
The economic and health impacts of this spill are obvious, and for those with an historical and cultural connection with the land the impacts extend even further. In an interview with CNN, a leader from the Navajo reservation, Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie, explained the depth of harm. "An even higher tier [of impact] is our spiritual realization of what water represents to us," he said. "Water is a very intricate, very elemental basis of the tradition of our religion. And for our river to be harmed in this way, the damage -- spiritually, emotionally, psychologically is beyond description."