On August 5, 2015, 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage was accidentally released from the Gold King Mine spill, eventually reaching the San Juan River - the spiritual and physical lifeblood of the Navajo Nation. As a result, environmental contamination from catastrophic mine spills severely impacted indigenous people to the core of their spiritual and physical livelihoods, and there became a potential for unique exposure pathways and greater health risks. Further complicating the situation was the lack of empirical short and long-term exposure data following mine spills, which is necessary for scientists to address these concerns. Building on established partnerships with the Navajo Nation, this project aimed to measure the short-term exposure to lead and arsenic and evaluate the risk perceptions of Navajo communities dependent on the San Juan River in order to understand the potential long-term health risks from the Gold King Mine spill and develop mitigation strategies. The first aim was to determine levels of exposures in three Navajo Chapters downstream of the spill within 9 months of the spill and prior to the growing season. The second aim was to assess temporal and spatial changes in sediment, agricultural soil, river and well water in the three Navajo Chapters within 12 months of the spill. The third aim was to determine the association between Navajo community members' perception of health risks and measured health risks from the Gold King Mine spill within the 9-month period after the spill. The results of this investigation were used to develop a community-based intervention, designed to prevent potentially harmful exposures based on actual measured risk and/or communicate the actual long-term risks from the Gold King mine spill. While this specific incident may have been one of the largest acid mine spills in recent history, the Department of Interior has estimated more than 500,000 abandoned mines throughout the United States, and the potential for ongoing acid mine leaks or large-scale spills to impact many communities and eco-systems is high. The outcomes of this study could also be used to improve risk assessment and communication in the unfortunate event of future mine spill disasters affecting other communities. This projects received funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Information about the community-based intervention created based on data from this study can be found here.