Flint Is Not The Only Water Crisis America Ignored

02/23/2016 05:14 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2017
FLINT, MI - FEBRUARY 19: People gather in front of a church before participating in a national mile-long march to highlight t
FLINT, MI - FEBRUARY 19: People gather in front of a church before participating in a national mile-long march to highlight the push for clean water in Flint February 19, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. The march was organized in part by Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The water crisis in Flint is a tragedy. As it has unfolded, we have learned the massive cost that these families have been asked to pay, with their health and their lives and their security. And the reason for this crime against humanity? The pursuit of the almighty dollar by a few people in power. As that reality sets in, so does the shock. The knowledge that our own government, members of our society, could willingly and knowingly poison a population for profit is almost too much to bear. But, the idea was no stranger to Earley or Ambrose or Snyder. The ability of those in power to subjugate their fellow man for personal gain has been a doctrine of this country since it began.

From the time of Christopher Columbus's "discovery" until now, this has been business as usual for the Americas. The enslavement of Native peoples in the mid-1500s, the slave trade of African Americans, the Seminole War, the Trail of Tears, the forced sterilization of African American and Native American women, the Indian Removal Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Japanese Internment Camps, and the denial of rights to women. Perhaps we have been able to deny, and side step our own shame and responsibility, shielded by the cloak that is the freedom and bravery woven in the flag of America. A mistake is made when we forget that many heroes of that flag were those of color, the female sex, the poor, and found freedom and bravery fighting their oppressors here at home. Another mistake is made when we think that history is now over.

We are a product of our environment. And when that environment justifies, even subsidizes the discrimination, exploitation, and abuse of those less powerful, the message is sent. Not just to our leaders, who we call upon to bear the responsibility, but to ourselves, as we subtley support this way of living as acceptable. That is why the movement of those in the public eye--the journalists, the celebrities--is so important not just to the victims of Flint, but to our country as a whole. And, as happy as I am to see help given where help is needed, a question keeps popping into my mind. "What about Tribal America?"

Because, much like Flint, they have been having a water crisis of their own.

There are 15,000 abandoned Uranium mines in 14 states in this country. In New Mexico and Arizona, during the 1940's, the government started mining for uranium on the Navajo reservation. From 1944 to 1986, four million tons of uranium ore were extracted. The Navajo didn't understand radioactive waste. They swam in the contaminated water. They showered with it, laundered with it, cooked with it, and drank it. They built hogans and corrals and roads with the mine waste. That changed in 1979. A dam broke at the United Nuclear Corporation Mill. This occurred less than four months after Three Mile Island. It released over three times the radiation, making it the biggest nuclear spill in U.S. history. Yet, no one heard of it. Heaps of waste are still radioactive 30 years later. This poisoning even spawned its own new disease, labeled "Navajo neuropathy." The Navajo may now understand the effects of radioactivity better than anyone.

This year, the EPA "accidentally" breached containment at the Gold King Mine in Colorado. It actually was a failure of the EPA to use proper procedure and safety protocols. And then, the EPA waited 24 hours to report the blowout. The spill covered 110 acres of the Animas river with sludge an inch thick on the bottom. That toxic sludge flowed down into the San Juan River, the lifeblood of the Navajo reservation.

Farmers made the choice to turn off irrigation, leaving thousands of acres of crops without water. Crops that their people need for food, and to sell as their only income. They made that choice to protect the land. This was a giant decision, especially for a tribe that has as many as 40 percent of homes without running water.

The Navajo are 60 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water or a toilet. On the Reservation, 44 percent of the children live in poverty. With no running water, families bring water in, bucket by bucket, from outdoor plastic storage tubs. It can be a 100 mile round trip journey to get water supplies for these families, and many don't have a car. They instead rely on the Navajo "Water Lady", Darlene Arviso, who is a literal life saving Angel to the people of this desert. She drives a yellow water tanker, and visits 250 homes to deliver water, only once a month. While most American families use an average of 400 gallons a day, these families use an average of just 7 gallons. And if they run out? Well, then they run out. And they often do.

The American Indians of New Mexico and Arizona were not allowed to vote until 1948, so as water rights were being allocated, they were not part of the equation. The only water source they are then left with is underground, where even if they can find it, it may not be drinkable. The water underground is laced with Uranium. The Reservation has many wells, but the people don't dare use them anymore, after others started getting sick.

The EPA promised help to the Navajo in response to the Gold King spill. That help started to trickle in, a week later, with a delivery of hay for the livestock, and then culminated with water delivered in repurposed filtered oil tanks. When Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye inspected the water, he found it was contaminated. The water came out oily and brown, and a brown sludge covered his finger when placed in the spigot. The EPA and its contractor, Triple S Trucking, insisted that the tanks had been properly cleaned. The Navajo Nation rejected the water, and sent the tanks back.

This left them still with a devastating lack of water. The EPA then issued a statement that the Animas and San Juan Rivers have returned to their pre-spill state. Other communities in Colorado and New Mexico have turned on their intakes. The Navajo have not, relying instead on their own internal safety testing. Still looming is the Sunnyside Mine, near the Gold King. Warnings have been issued that the bulkheads there are at extreme risk of failure, causing not 3 million gallons of toxic spill, but billions of gallons into the Animas. No action has been taken.

And, the Navajo are not alone.

South Dakota has 272 abandoned Uranium mines, which are contaminating the Cheyenne River and other waterways. The Cave Hills area of South Dakota currently has 104 abandoned open pit uranium mines. One mine alone, which is located 200 yards from an elementary school in Ludlow, emits more than 4 times per hour the radiation that is being emitted by the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan. In Wyoming, there are hundreds of abandoned open pit mines in the Powder River Basin alone. Clark Fork, Montana's largest river, was found to have been contaminated with arsenic, lead, copper, zinc and cadmium for 120 acres, all the way to Missoula.

In North Dakota, a fracking pipe line leak spilled 3 million gallons of brine, a toxic mix of salt, fracking fluids and petroleum, into two creeks that reach the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for nearby populations. The EPA has estimated that mining has polluted at least 40 percentof the stream reaches in the headwaters of western watersheds. Given the trustworthiness of the EPA on matters of public safety and environmental protection, one can guess this estimate to be much higher. If old mines were the only problem, that would be too large a problem for any community to bear. Sadly, those in high positions are once again wielding power over whole communities, through means that can only be found legal by extremely loose definitions of the law. From the Ho Chunk burial mounds in Wisconsin, to the Keweenaw Bay Indians fight against Kennecot Eagle Minerals, to the Arizona land giveaway to Resolution Mining, for a copper mine to built at the Apache ceremonial grounds of Oak Flats, put in place by John McCain, a long time member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The man-made catastrophe of Flint gives us all an opportunity. It allows us to see, in concrete, human, life and death terms, the cost of our status quo. It allows us to see the underbelly of our society that needs to be brought to witness; racism, classicism, consumerism, political corruption, systematic abuse, and environmental desecration. We, as a people, are at a turning point in our evolution. We have the choice to face our darkest choices and correct them, or to witness our own physical and spiritual demise.

We can choose to face and witness. We can choose to be called to action, and in turn call for better. Because, in this great, beautiful country of which we are all temporary guests, we have the freedom to do so. We, as a people, have the bravery to turn against what is easy, what is comfortable, what is a lifestyle, or an expected right. And we do that because we have a vision of our future that is more than what is being offered. We have done it before, hundreds of thousands of brave men and women, from all walks of life, have stood for the right. We can do it again. Let Flint be a first step.

Then, let Tribal America be the next. May all the voices joining for Flint, all the journalists, all the celebrities offering aid, all the people at home who are outraged, let them all stand up. Stand up, and stand with, those who need them. Let the Invisible Minority be invisible no more. Let them hear us say, "We see you. We hear your need. And we are coming to help."