Protecting The Waterways Of The Navajo Nation

8:11 minutes

Nearly 250,000 residents live in the Navajo Nation, which spans sections of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. The area also contains thousands of legacy and active mines. In August 2015, an accident at the Gold King Mine located in Silverton, Colorado spilled millions of tons of toxic waste water, contaminating the Animas River that flowed through the Navajo Nation.

In the final installment from Science Friday’s “Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science” video series produced with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, hydrologist Karletta Chief, who is a member of the Navajo Bitter Water Clan, discusses her work monitoring the spill and how her personal relationship with those waterways influenced her pursuit of science. Plus, Breakthrough video producer Emily Driscoll wraps up the series and reflects on the incredible careers of the scientists featured in the videos.

Read a profile of Chief’s research and work with the Navajo community, and watch the rest of the Breakthrough: Portrait of Women in Science series.

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Segment Guests

Emily Driscoll

Emily Driscoll is a science documentary producer in New York, New York. Her production company is BonSci Films.

Karletta Chief

Karletta Chief is an assistant professor and extension specialist in Soil Water and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: For the past year, we’ve been profiling scientists in our “Breakthrough Portraits of Women in Science” video series, getting a closer look at how their lives and work intersect. Today is our final installment. Emily Driscoll, producer on “Breakthrough,” is here to tell us about the series. Emily?

EMILY DRISCOLL: Hi, Ira. Thanks.

IRA FLATOW: You produced a number of these videos. What themes were you looking at?

EMILY DRISCOLL: So “Breakthrough Portrait of Women in Science”, it’s an anthology of six short films that follow women in science across STEM fields. And the goal is to show the challenges and also the excitements of what it’s like to be a scientist. And what struck me in following six of these incredible stories is how a lot of these scientists had overcome really immense challenges, whether they’re cultural, disability, or very tough field work. And these obstacles became motivation, or allowed them to see their research in a different way.

For example, Dr. Bariba, she grew up in Algeria, she excelled at math, she had tuberculosis in her family, and now, fast forward, she’s a fluid dynamicist at MIT and she films sneezes in extreme slow motion to see how the droplets are traveling to better understand disease transmission. And similarly, we went to the Indian space agency, ISRO, and saw the individual challenges of the scientists, as well as the team challenges. How do you get to Mars on an extremely limited budget, and when the country has never done that before?

IRA FLATOW: It’s a fascinating series. We’re going to tell people how to get to see the whole series later. And congratulations to you, Emily–


IRA FLATOW: –on a great series. And in fact, we have the latest installment up there, and I’m going to talk about that right now. Joining us now is Carlotta Chief, who was featured in our latest “Breakthrough” video. She’s assistant professor of soil, water, and environmental science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and she’s been monitoring the waterways of her community and the Navajo Nation. Welcome to Science Friday.

CARLOTTA CHIEF: Thank you. [INAUDIBLE], Ira. It’s great to be on the show, and it’s truly a big honor for me.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, we’re very happy to have you. Thank you very much. I know you’re a hydrologist, and growing up in the Navajo Nation, what got you interested in going into science and studying water?

CARLOTTA CHIEF: Well, I grew up on the Navajo Nation without electricity or running water. And my family lived within the Peabody [? Leasehold ?] area, and our family was heavily impacted by the mining, and we had to move. Meanwhile, while they were mining all this coal and using groundwater to transport it, our family didn’t have power or running water. And so at a very young age, I was questioning why this was happening, and why our land was being mined, and I came into this role of being the translator for my family, and doing things for my family related to the mining impacts. And my family encouraged me to go to college, and I just– I really enjoyed science in school.

IRA FLATOW: So you went she went to college at Stanford. And back in 2015, there was a spill from the Gold King Mine that affected the Animas River that flows through the Navajo Nation. And you found that how the residents were using the river was very different from how the EPA characterized how people should use it, or people did use it.

CARLOTTA CHIEF: Yes. The Navajo people have a really deep connection to the river and the environment in their cultural practices, their beliefs, even their clans. And so I already knew, from the beginning, that our people used the river in many different ways. And it’s common knowledge amongst the people there, and the environmental managers. So we were able to document this through surveys that we administered to 60 households living along the San Juan River.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with Dr. Carlotta Chief, a hydrologist from the University of Arizona in Tucson. And so you got to– you studied how the water was entering– was coming out of the mine, and that it was polluted?

CARLOTTA CHIEF: Yes. There are over 11,000 mines up in this region of southern Colorado, and many of them are legacy mining activities that occurred back in the late 1800s that spanned about 120 years. And so currently, the EPA is dealing with trying to remediate these mines. And so while they were doing these activities, one of their contractors accidentally dislodged a plug that was holding back a large volume of acid mine drainage.

IRA FLATOW: And it was then affecting the drinking water? And you mention in the video that there were, like, hundreds of ways that the Navajo community was using this water.

CARLOTTA CHIEF: Yes. And so we documented over 400 ways that the Navajo community members are using this river, including cultural, spiritual, recreational, livelihood, and arts and crafts. And so this gives us information that there are potential exposure pathways that Navajo could have if they were using the river and it had exceeded the levels of different metals, and could be a potential health risk to people. So it gave us information that shows us that there are more exposure pathways than EPA had come up with initially.

IRA FLATOW: So you were sort of the counterbalance to the EPA here, explaining things.

CARLOTTA CHIEF: It was an honor to have the opportunity to help my community in a situation where there needed to be more cultural sensitivity. Also, I had built a lot of the partnerships with the communities through the super fun research program here at the U of A, and so I had been working in impacts of mining. And so it was an opportunity to build upon those efforts, because I had those partnerships from the community, and I was able to work with cultural experts to also help me communicate the science.

IRA FLATOW: And the status of the river is now cleaner, but you say there’s more needs to be done?

CARLOTTA CHIEF: Yes. Well, the EPA actually deemed the water to meet agricultural standards several weeks after the spill, however they are currently having a long-term monitoring plan in place. And our work is really to look at the one-year, short-term exposure to the spill. And so we’re wrapping up that work now as a result of funding we received from the National Institute of Health. And we’re continuing on to look at long-term efforts, which is funded by the U of A [? Howery ?] Foundation. And we’re going to be looking at emergency response, citizen science, and working with the community to look at the resiliency to future spills.

IRA FLATOW: Well, congratulations to you, and good luck to you, Dr. Chief.


IRA FLATOW: Carlotta Chief is assistant professor and extension specialist at the Soil, Water, and Environmental Science unit at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

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