A Year After Millions of Gallons of Toxic Water Spilled Into the Animas River, Little Has Changed
When Duane “Chili” Yazzie learned that a massive load of bright-yellow toxic mining waste was flowing down the Animas River toward his small farming community in Shiprock, New Mexico, he rushed home and turned on every sprinkler and hose he had.
With the plume of waste about 100 miles upstream from his farm, he figured he had a day or two before it affected his irrigation water. And in the meantime, his crops needed all the clean water he could get.
Shiprock is a sprawling but sparse town of about 9,000 people in the rugged, high-altitude desert of northwest New Mexico. Positioned about halfway between the Arizona border and the city of Farmington, the town is perhaps most notable for the 1,500-foot jagged or “winged” rock piercing through the otherwise-flat ground — early European settlers called the area Shiprock because they thought the formation looked like a large sailboat with multiple masts and sails.
Many in Shiprock rely on farming to make a living or to feed their families, so when officials said they’d be turning off the irrigation water for an undetermined amount of time, a sudden and collective sense of fear overtook the room.
All evening long, as Yazzie allowed the irrigation water to flow into his 100-acre farm, every major news outlet in the country was broadcasting shocking images of the Animas River. The waste, which was reportedly spilling out of the mine at a rate of 600 gallons per minute, was yellow because of the sulfuric acid and heavy metals it contained — lead, arsenic, cadmium, copper, aluminum, zinc, and manganese, among others.
In total, about 880,000 pounds of heavy metals spilled into the river, and some tests showed lead levels in the water were 12,000 times higher than normal.
At 66, Yazzie has black hair streaked with silver that he usually wears pulled back in a braid. He favors bright shirts and beaded jewelry, a color palette that contrasts sharply with his thick, black eyebrows and the deep laugh lines around his mouth. He speaks slowly, deliberately, and often squints or closes his eyes as if he’s trying to formulate just the right sentence in his head before he says it.
“Yellow River,” he calls it. “The day the river turned yellow…” (Continue reading at the Phoenix New Times.)