While the sun set over the Four Corners area in New Mexico, the day was just beginning for a group of EHS-TRUE/UBRP researchers. Following a nine-hour drive from Tucson filled with trail mix, selective sleeping, and beautiful vistas, five UBRP students (Nathan Borrero, Alondra Harris, Ruby Sierra, Sergio Salguero, and Emily Leavitt), accompanied by Prof. Carol Bender and Dr. Paloma Beamer, arrived in Shiprock, NM, on the Navajo Nation. The students were here on a mission: to gather soil, sediment, and river water samples with the goal of assessing possible metals contamination of the environment following the Gold King Mine spill. After meeting Ben Rivera, another EHS-TRUE/UBRPer, Dr. Karletta Chief, and Dr. Walt Klimecki, the entire group quickly made their way to the first of many farms they would visit over the course of the next three days (EHS-TRUE/UBRPer Shade Rodriguez joined our group the next day).
For many, this first time experience with field work presented obstacles and setbacks that were dealt with by remaining flexible, open-minded, and patient. Constructing a project of this magnitude absolutely requires the expectation of delays and trials along the way. However, one of the largest take home messages of the trip was to always consider the interests of the impacted community. Although the trip was far from flawless, the magnitude of patience required for the sample collection was overshadowed by the patience of the Navajo community awaiting results.
At the first farm, the group had the privilege of listening to one of the Navajo elders, Dr. Emerson. He gave a thorough overview of the Native perspective on the environment and the Gold King mine spill. He also taught the group of the Navajo connection to the land, both physical and spiritual. The land is something that has been cared for and passed down by their ancestors for generations. Nature and the Navajo people have coexisted for so long that they live in harmony with nature in all facets of their lives. The stark contrast between his love for the land and the dormant fields cast a somber tone over the remainder of the evening. But, with a humbled mindset, the UBRPers were more driven than ever to get the samples that could help this community.
Even with this newfound sense of urgency, the UBRPers could not have accomplished such a daunting task alone. Northern Arizona University (NAU) shared the same focus, and further bolstered the number of researchers hoping to provide useful information to this community. This project was significant as their efforts were geared towards measuring the concentration of heavy metals and other deleterious chemicals, such as arsenic, in the soil and water used for farming: a matter of utmost concern. However, this land and its policies were not the property of either university. In order to accomplish anything, the researchers needed to build a connection with the community. This meant speaking with local people, and ensuring that no one was left in the dark in regards to the team’s goals. It was only with the community’s trust and communication that the researchers could take their samples. Only with this trust can the community benefit.
For the most part, the people in this chapter of the Navajo Nation were grateful and willing to work with the researchers. Many, however, expressed a weariness towards more samples being taken, and for good reason. Livelihoods have been affected since the spill in August, 2015, and still, they wait for definitive results from various organizations as to whether the water is safe for irrigation. The EPA, Navajo EPA, Water Defense, U of A, and NAU have all begun testing the soil and water samples but with differing results that are not always transparent or clear to the community. This weariness became clear when the team of researchers was offered an opportunity to sit in on a meeting with concerned members of the community. Here, some of the community’s farmers expressed the idea that their livelihoods depended on receiving a clear answer regarding the state of their land and water. While many organizations have worked to improve the situation, none thus far have succeeded in easing the fears of the community. The Navajos have called for collaboration among the various entities, which was a concept that resonated with the group of UBRPers. While they wished to help this community, it would never be possible without a willingness to work directly with other organizations. This lesson played heavily into another concept the UBRPers learned about during the trip: the importance of flexibility.
Not many people outside of the Navajo Nation have noticed the psychological toll the mine spill has taken on the community. While the non-native farmers may lament the loss of crops for the season, the Navajo people also carry an emotional trauma from seeing the river in a potentially poisoned state, making an assessment of the environment’s current condition all the more important. Often times in research, it becomes difficult to look past the analytical data and focus on the actual impact this research has on the community it involves. Coming to the Navajo Nation over spring break has helped bridge the gaps among researchers, research, and communities.
This trip was funded in part by a grant from the NIEHS to the University of Arizona (R25-ES025494)