An increase suicides has shattered Navajo Nation over the past year, and leaders are blaming an unusual source of the despair: a polluted river and the inaction of the EPA.
For most Americans, the third week of December is about wrapping up Christmas shopping and prepping for a whirlwind of family gatherings. But for the leaders of the Navajo Nation, it’s about something much heavier: suicide prevention.
Russell Begaye and Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation’s president and vice president, respectively, issued an executive order earlier this month designating the third week of December and one week in June for focusing on preventing suicide after a recent spate of deaths rocked the tribe.
While suicide has long taken a disproportionate number of Native American lives, Begaye said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast that the spike in his community is new, and pointed to an unusual potential factor in the uptick: a destructive wastewater spill this past summer that impacted Navajo lands.
Begaye told The Daily Beast he was concerned that the destruction caused by the Colorado’s Gold King Mine spill last August may be contributing to the suicide uptick and that the drawn-out clean-up efforts exacerbate the struggles that members of his community already face.
He added that the Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the disaster—which he characterized as inefficient and counter-productive—added additional stress to a community already on edge.
“One of the things that they seemingly do is that they wait you out,” he told The Daily Beast. “I mean, they—they’ll say all the nice things, all the right things. They’ll put the proposals on the table but you know that there’s no real action, there’s no real meat behind what they say.”
The disaster happened on August 5 of this year when EPA personnel and contractors—ironically enough—were trying to clean out an abandoned mine. They accidentally broke a dam, spilling millions of gallons of wastewater into Colorado’s Animas River. The spill turned the river a mustard yellow color and caused widespread contamination.
This isn’t the first time Begaye has raised the possibility that the river damage has lead the Navajo to take their lives.
In testimony at a joint hearing before two House committees earlier this year, he said the spill had compounded his people’s “already significant historical trauma.”
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