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

Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne, Karletta Chief, Perry H. Charley, Mae Gilene Begay, Nathan Lothrop, Melanie L. Bell, Robert A. Canales, Nicolette I. Teufel-Shone, Paloma I. Beamer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Background: 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. Methods: 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. Results: 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%. Significance: 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)852-866
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2021


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

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Toxicology
  • Pollution
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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