Associate Professor of Environmental Science, University of Arizona
Title: Risk Perception of Navajo Communities Along the San Juan River Following the Gold King Mine Spill
Abstract: On August 5, 2015, 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage was accidently released from the Gold King Mine Spill (GKMS), eventually reaching the San Juan River which the Navajos greatly depended on for subsistence, cultural, and spiritual practices. Although water and soil samples collected with a year after the Spill show water meets agricultural standards, the extent of emotional and spiritual impacts were unknown. Objectives of this project were (1) to assess perceived risk of activities related to the San Juan River and (2) to measure perceived health effects resulting from contact with the San Juan River. Our hypothesis was: the GKMS would increase the communities’ perceived risk of health effects linked to river contamination.. Household questionnaires were administered to 59 Navajo homes in three communities dependent on the San Juan River. Results show that the average perceived health risk in engaging in 11 different activities were substantially higher after the Spill (4.24) compared to engaging in those same activities before the Spill (2.08) when using a scale from (1) “Very Low Risk” to (5) “Very High Risk.” Additionally, 42% of respondents perceived it would be “likely” or “almost certain” that they would develop physical health effects due to contact or use of materials from the San Juan River after the Spill. This data shows that the GKMS had significant long-term behavioral and emotional impacts on the Navajo people. Next steps include community healing efforts are to help restore confidence that the water meets agricultural standards of use.