Russell Begaye stared at the yellow water that keeps pouring out of a hole in the side of a Colorado mountain, racing down a slope and dumping heavy metals into rivers critical to survival on the nation’s largest Native American reservation and across the Southwest.
At the Gold King Mine, Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, couldn’t help but seethe concerned faces of his people — the farmers who can’t water their corn now, and the ranchers scrambling to keep their cattle, sheep and goats away from the polluted San Juan River.
“We were told that the water was clearing up and getting back to normal,” he said. “This is what EPA was telling us. We wanted to go up there as close as we could to the source. We wanted our people to see the water is still yellow.”
Climbing unannounced past barriers and up the mountain, Begaye and a small contingent of Navajo officials got a closer look over the weekend at the mine blowout sending more than 3 million gallons of water laden with lead, arsenic and other metals into Cement Creek, then down the Animas River and into the San Juan River.
A 100-mile-long plume has since traveled for hundreds of miles, through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah on the way to Lake Powell, a key source of water for the Southwest. And the yellow sludge has been diluted along the way to the point of transparency, but authorities were still concerned about potentially toxic metals in the plume.