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The chemical spill in Colorado's Animas River earlier this month 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. That leaves hundreds of Navajo farmers driving long distances to water their crops. From member station KJZZ, Laurel Morales has the latest.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: The Environmental Protection Agency was investigating an old mine near Silverton, Colo., earlier this month when it accidentally released 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater. 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 stands in front of the still leaking mine.
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RUSSELL BEGAYE: This is the story that was related to us just now. The person was working the back hoe, trying to block off more of this area, but then he saw a spring. And the water burst through here, and it just went straight down the mountain down here.
MORALES: The mustard-colored water then flowed downstream to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. That's where rancher Irving Shaggy feeds his family's livestock.
IRVING SHAGGY: They've been growing sudangrass for my cattle and sheep, which is our livelihood. We sell the wool. We sell the cattle every year.
MORALES: But Shaggy doesn't know if his cattle will be contaminated and unsalable. He fights back angry, tired tears at the disruption of his usual routine.
SHAGGY: I mean, I'm upset mostly because every two days, I haul water to my livestock, and I get it from the river. And I irrigate my fields.
MORALES: But that changed earlier this month.
SHAGGY: I can't irrigate. It's taking a lot out of me because I've got to haul - I've been hauling water out of the other river, and that costs a lot of money.
MORALES: He now has to make a 70 mile round-trip every time he hauls water to his cattle. Shaggy says 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 at the future.
SHAGGY: It's going to be a long struggle. The water's still contaminated, and it's embedded in the mud, in the rocks, in the tree branches along the river.
MORALES: 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 EPA has only started in the last seven years to clean up those mines.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
MORALES: One Navajo farmer introduces himself at an EPA meeting at the Shiprock Chapter House late last week.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: These folks here are hurt. They're connected to the land. They're connected to the water.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We can't be compensated for that. We can't be compensated for all the prayers that was given to that water of life.
RANDY NATTIS: We are working hard - very hard - to get this right.
MORALES: That's a EPA emergency responder Randy Nattis.
NATTIS: I'm frustrated. I know everyone here is frustrated. I haven't slept. No one has slept since this has happened.
MORALES: The Navajos say 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 Navajo president said in a statement, quote, "the feds are protecting themselves at the expense of the Navajo people, and it is outrageous." For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
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