A team of researchers investigating the effects of last year's Gold King Mine toxic spill on the Navajo community has won the first $600,000 challenge grant awarded by the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona.
The team, which had received $10,000 in January from the Haury program to complete feasibility studies, is led by Karletta Chief, a Navajo hydrologist and assistant professor in the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences, and Paloma Beamer, associate professor of environmental health sciences in the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. It also includes UA professors Nicolette Teufel-Shone and Dean Billheimer, in addition to representatives of Northern Arizona University, Fort Lewis College and Diné College.
Three finalist teams for the three-year challenge grant each made a 10-minute presentation Tuesday at the UA's Environment and Natural Resources 2 building before a panel of seven judges and a packed auditorium, which was dedicated as the Agnese Nelms Haury Lecture Hall.
The finalists had been selected from proposals in the fall. The others were a team led by UA professor Sallie Marston of the School of Geography and Development that is focused on food security through elementary-school gardening programs, and one led by UA School of Anthropology director Diane Austin and Ann Marie Wolf of the Sonora Environmental Research Institute that is working to bring affordable solar power to lower-income households.
The Gold King Mine spill, which occurred near Silverton, Colorado, on Aug. 5, 2015, dumped approximately 3 million gallons of acid water and heavy metals into the Animas River. The water flowed into the San Juan River, the primary source of irrigation for Navajo Nation farmers. The spill was caused accidentally by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency while trying to prevent leakage of toxic materials.
"The lifeline to these communities was completely cut off," said Janene Yazzie of Tó Bei Nihi Dziil, a Diné water security group, and a member of the research team. "When a river is contaminated, the full loss cannot be quantified. ... This wicked problem must serve as a wake-up call."
Chief said that with the awarding of the challenge grant, the team can shift its focus from developing partnerships in the Navajo Nation to crafting an emergency-response plan for such disasters. She noted that water is sacred to the Navajo people and that the spill offended their spiritual and traditional values.
"We'll be able to do something the community really wants," she said. "We're treading on new ground and empowering the community."
In March, the team received a $434,000 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to determine differences in exposure among three Navajo communities downstream of the spill, assessing changes in sediment, agricultural soil, and river and irrigation water.
Mary Grier, a member of the Haury program donor-advised fund board, was one of the judges for the challenge grant. She said the panel, which was given five minutes to ask questions of each team after its presentation, felt the winning team best embodied the interests and philosophy of Agnese Nelms Haury, a longtime UA benefactor whose estate created the program in environment and social justice.
"She had a track record of efforts to fund and engage the Native American community," Grier said of Haury. "The injustice of a community whose water source was poisoned not being involved would have appealed to her.
"This project would be hard to explain to the average grant maker. It had partnerships and a depth of work that was impressive, and it also had four educational institutions involved."