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Impacts to Diné activities with the San Juan River after the Gold King Mine Spill



On August 5th, 2015, 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage was accidentally discharged from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado into Cement Creek which is a tributary to the Animas and San Juan Rivers. The government-initiated risk assessment only assessed a recreational scenario (i.e. hiker drinking from the river), failing to recognize the deep connection of the Diné (Navajo) with the San Juan River.


Utilizing a mixed-methods approach we determined the impacts of the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill (GKMS or Spill) on Diné activities. We developed a questionnaire to collect pre- and post-GKMS Diné activity frequency and duration. Navajo Nation Community Health Representatives administered the questionnaire to 63 Diné adults and 27 children living in three Navajo communities along the River.


Through analysis of the focus group transcripts we identified 43 unique activities between the Diné and San Juan River. There were significant reductions in the total number, frequency, and duration of livelihood, dietary, recreational, cultural/spiritual and arts and craft activities. On average, Diné activities with the San Juan River following the GKMS decreased by 56.2%.


The significant reduction in activities following the GKMS may lead to long-term trauma, impacting the ability of the Diné to pass down teachings to their children affecting future generations to come. The 43 distinct activities between the Diné and the San Juan River highlight the importance for scientists and disaster responders to consider cultural and spiritual impacts when responding to environmental disasters and conducting risk assessments among Indigenous communities.

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Fig. 1: Map of Gold King Mine in relation to Navajo Nation.
Fig. 2: Example of questionnaire.
Fig. 3: Participant flow diagram.


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We would like to thank the participants who opened their homes to the Gold King Mine Spill Dinè Exposure Project (GKMS-DEP). We are honored to have the support of the Navajo Nation Department of Health Community Health Representatives, Shiprock, Aneth, and Upper Fruitland community. We would also like to thank our elders Duane “Chili” Yazzie and the late Dr. Larry Emerson for guiding us through these efforts. The GKMS-DEP is tremendously grateful to Rachelle Begay, Corinna Sabaque, and Heidi Dugi for their assistance during the household questionnaire administration. We would like to thank Dr. Frank Sage of the Diné College’s Diné Policy Institute for assisting in the grouping of activities.


This work was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS P50ES026089, EPA R83615, R21ES026948), the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program (NIEHSP42 ES004940), Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center (NIEHS P30ES006694, T32 ES007091), Center for American Indian Resilience P20MD006872, and the Agnese Nelms Haury Foundation. This publication’s contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health

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Correspondence to Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne.

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Van Horne, Y.O., Chief, K., Charley, P.H. et al. Impacts to Diné activities with the San Juan River after the Gold King Mine Spill. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 31, 852–866 (2021).

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  • Disaster
  • Indigenous Health
  • Environment
  • Activity Patterns
  • Gold King Mine Spill
  • Diné (Navajo)

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