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Arizona Researchers to Study Environmental Effects on Navajo Lands a Year after Gold King Mine Spill

The University of Arizona has received a $434,000 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to investigate the effects of the Gold King Mine spill on Navajo lands. Leading the investigation is Dr. Paloma Beamer, associate professor of environmental health sciences in the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and Dr. Karletta Chief, a Navajo hydrologist and assistant professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences. The NIEHS grant supports a team of researchers from the UA, Northern Arizona University and Navajo community health representatives.

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[Photo: Dr. Paloma Beamer (left) and Dr. Karletta Chief]

Approximately three million gallons of acid water and heavy metals from the Gold King Mine poured into Colorado’s Animas River on August 5, 2015. The water flowed into the San Juan River, the primary source of irrigation for Navajo Nation farmers. The spill was caused accidentally by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) while trying to prevent leakage of toxic materials.

The investigators will determine differences in exposures between three Navajo communities downstream of the Gold King Mine spill; Upper Fruitland and Shiprock in New Mexico and Aneth in Utah. They will assess changes in sediment, agricultural soil, and river and irrigation water.

“Even though there are tens of thousands of abandoned mines throughout the United States, the catastrophic Gold King Mine spill has highlighted how little empirical data exists regarding potential community exposures and long-term health impacts after such an event,” said Dr. Beamer.

“Results from this study have the potential to inform risk communication and intervention strategies in the unfortunate event of future mine spills, particularly in Native American communities. We are also working with Navajo students and community members to carry out this research and increase tribal capacity.” Dr. Beamer added.

Dr. Chief says leakage from abandoned mines upstream is a constant threat and the project will work towards understanding the exposures Navajos face.

“To the Navajo people, water is sacred. The land they live on is their identity and their livelihood. Their world view is based on Mother Earth and Father Sky. The impact of this spill cut deep to the core of these spiritual and traditional values. At the same time, there is little data that provides answers to Navajo concerns regarding the potential exposures they face as result of this contamination,” said Dr. Chief.

The study received approval by the Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board. Project leaders Drs. Chief and Beamer are coordinating their sampling efforts with the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency, Navajo Division of Natural Resources and Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

The team of co-investigators working with Drs. Beamer and Chief include: Dr. Nicolette Teufel-Shone, professor of health promotion sciences, and Dr. Dean Billheimer, professor of biostatistics, with the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health; Dr. Jani Ingram, Navajo, professor of analytical chemistry, and Dr. Manley Begay, Navajo, professor of Applied Indigenous Studies, with NAU. Students and interns from UA, NAU, Diné College, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Native American Water Corps program will be working out in the field collecting soil samples.

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