EPA: Soil on Navajo Nation trending to pre-spill conditions

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NENAHNEZAD, N.M. (AP) — The concentration of metals in the San Juan River on the Navajo Nation is returning to what it was before the release of toxic sludge from a gold mine reached the reservation, federal officials said Friday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection agency released new data of surface water and soil samples from nearly a dozen locations on the Navajo Nation. It showed that iron and other metals peaked in the week following the Aug. 5 spill from the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, but they since have declined, the EPA said.

Communities off the reservation have reopened the San Juan and Animas rivers to recreation, agriculture and livestock watering based on similar data sets, the EPA said.

Navajo President Russell Begaye cleared the Fruitland Irrigation canal in northwestern New Mexico for reopening after it's flushed, which could happen this weekend. Farmers who use that system met with Begaye on Thursday in Nenahnezad and asked him for help relieving their wilting crops. Some fields went dry while other farmers hauled water for their plants.

Not all of the tribal irrigation systems along the San Juan are reopening. Farmers in Shiprock voted last week to keep the canal closed for a year over concerns about soil contamination. Farmers further downstream have not submitted official resolutions to Begaye's office.

"We're talking directly to the farmers," said Meghan Cox, a spokeswoman for the Navajo Nation. "The ones that are most affected by it are the ones the president is making sure are weighing in."

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd sponsored legislation to restore the water in all irrigation systems dependent on the San Juan River and let each farmer decide whether to open head gates. It's eligible for committee action Wednesday following a public comment period.

The tribe's testing of surface water determined it was safe to use for irrigation. Tribal tests of the soil have not been completed, said Lillie Lane, a spokeswoman for the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.

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