Respect Sacred Waters: Save Oak Flat

A short film by Paper Rocket Productions documenting testimonials of the San Carlos Apache and their allies about the proposed mine at Oak Flat.

In the Southwest, water is a scarce resource. It is not hard to imagine why the people of the region would hold their water not just as essential, but as sacred. Since their internment onto reservations, indigenous nations of the Southwest have seen their water rights increasingly diminished as well as the poisoning of sacred lands and waters. The effects of climate change compound this situation, which stand to make water an even scarcer resource for the coming generations. This is a topic of vital importance in modern Southwestern environmental justice. As a minority, and often impoverished, population with a history of systematic oppression, Native Americans serve as a prime investigatory group for environmental justice. Native peoples in the Southwest have struggled for centuries with water rights, contamination, and access to sacred waters, and the case of the San Carlos Apache at Oak Flat is no different.

Across the entire United States, government and private industry has desecrated sacred waters. In the Southwest, most problems revolve around contamination from mines, contested water rights, as well as flooding of sacred places due to the West’s obsession with stockpiling water. Many environmental justice cases in the Southwest involve water, the most sacred resource in the region.

We grew up learning a tradition of respect for water, hearing our Elders praying with water. Water is a part of every second of our lives, everything has water flowing through it, everything has life.” –Crow leaders

Standing in solidarity with Oak Flat

In 2014, Senator John McCain (R, AZ) hid a land swap inside a 2,000-page military budget after it had failed to pass as a standalone bill multiple times. The tactic of hiding controversial deals in large, must-pass bills has been used for decades; when Congress passed the bill, the land swap was also approved. The deal traded 2,400 acres of Oak Flat, a federally owned portion of land, for 5,000 acres of land owned by mining company, Resolution Copper. At first glance, it seemed like a good idea: Arizona gained more than double the amount of conservation land they gave away. As in any controversial deal, however, it was not so simple.

Oak Flat Gaan Canyon

Oak Flat is a portion of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona that borders the San Carlos Apache Reservation. It is home to holy waters important in Apache religious ceremonies as well as historic sites and artifacts that are thousands of years old. It also sits on top of the largest copper ore deposit in North America. Senator McCain proposed the land swap so Resolution could mine the copper at Oak Flat.  The mining will cause an area of over a mile in diameter to sink 1,000 feet into the ground while covering even more land with rubble and waste. The mine will cause contamination of the local watershed, including polluting the entire aquifer located under the deposit. This would destroy the Apache’s sacred waters: waters on which they have subsisted and have used in religious practices for millennia.

Many people oppose this deal. In fact, it was struck down twice in Congress before McCain was able to sneak it into another bill. Besides Native Americans, the list of critics includes the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, many politicians, public lands workers and advocates, archaeologists, and even local miners! The main three concerns are that 1) it will destroy sacred Apache sites and artefacts, 2) it will damage the (once) public National Forest land and will contaminate the aquifer and surrounding watershed, and 3) it sets a dangerous legal precedent in which Congress can just give away public lands with little oversight. In addition, the deal included conditions to bypass important parts of the required environmental and cultural evaluations, making it seem impossible to stop the mine.

“If there’s one thing we do all have in common it’s that we respect the Earth, and we are all fighting for our land.” – Wendsler Nosie Sr., San Carlos Apache Tribal Councilman

San Carlos Apache and other Native Peoples protest the destruction of traditional sacred waters

The Apache and Native American rights groups are the strongest objectors of the Oak Flat deal. The San Carlos Apache consider this land holy and require its existence to practice certain aspects of their religion. They have occupied the lands for thousands of years, but since Oak Flat is just outside reservation boundaries, the Apache have no legal claim to the land. This is a type of legal battle Native tribes across the country have struggled with since the inception of the reservation system. In the 1800’s, the American government forcibly removed the native peoples to the San Carlos Reservation and forced them to sign a treaty relinquishing the land using military force. The Apache did not willingly give up their ancestral homeland, but are now constrained in protecting it by these unjust laws and treaties. These cases disproportionately affect Native Americans who have little economic or political clout due to systematic oppression that has been institutionalized since the first arrival of Europeans on American soil.

 “Would (you) have this same position if an ore body were to be located beneath (your) church … and a company wanted to bulldoze or destroy it?” Terry Rambler, Chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe

The United States Constitution guarantees the freedom to practice one’s religion. It also guarantees that no private property shall be taken for public use without just compensation. Furthermore, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous people should have rights to their traditional lands and resources, even if they are currently held by another party (in this case, the U.S. government). In the Garma International Indigenous Water Declaration, indigenous peoples, including Native Americans, assert that scared waters are an integral part of their physical, cultural, and spiritual existence and they have an inherent right to them. These rights have all been violated by the careless trading and disrespectful and destructive proposed use of Oak Flat.

The San Carlos Apache have been protesting this gross injustice against their lands and waters for the past two years. Currently, some small steps have been taken to stop Resolution Copper. The National Park Service placed Oak Flat on the National Register of Historic Places, which will make it harder, but not impossible, to start the mine. Senator Bernie Sanders (D, VT) also introduced a bill to Congress in 2015 to stop the swap, but it has not yet been addressed. The San Carlos Apache continue to try to protect their ancestral holy waters, but they need your help. Write a letter to your senators and tell them that both the environment and Native American rights should be respected and to #SaveOakFlat.

More Cases of Native American Water Injustice:

Years after mining stops, uranium’s legacy lingers on Native land

Rainbow Bridge, Utah – Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí

Navajo water supply is more horrific than Flint, but no one cares because they’re Native American

What is the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Navajo Nation sues EPA over toxic mine spill

The Rito Seco Mine and Inadequacies in Public Participation

A Case of Public Participation

It is widely thought that a useful tool in the fight for environmental justice is increasing the public involvement of previously disadvantaged communities in the political processes surrounding the management of the environments they live in. While most agree it is a necessary first step in the fight for environmental justice, the extent to which public participation can be effective is still disputed[1]. Contentions surrounding the existence of an open pit gold mine located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado provide an example of the limits of public participation.

According to the United States Census, as of 2000, the town of San Luis contained 739 residents, 253 of which lived below the poverty line and over 88 percent were of Hispanic or Latino descent. In San Luis, several irrigation ditches and their accompanying water rights have been owned and managed through community cooperation since before the state of Colorado existed. The majority of stakeholders, or parciantes, in these acequias, as the ditches are called, near the town of San Luis, have kept the rights and responsibilities of the water they use to fuel their farms within their families to this day[6].


Initial Disputes Over the Mine

In the late 1980’s Battle Mountain Gold Co., a Houston based mining firm, began the process of creating an open pit gold mine roughly five miles away and directly upstream from the town of San Luis[3]. In order to operate, the mine needed a permit to augment the downstream water rights of the San Luis People’s Ditch, a downstream acequia. Concerned over the possibility of the mine contaminating the source of water for several of the acequias, and the destruction of previously communally used land, the citizens of San Luis strongly objected to the mine proposal[6]. Their opposition took the form of speaking out at county hearings, contacting local and state politicians with their opinions, taking Battle Mountain Gold to court and forming the Costilla County Committee for Environmental Soundness[4]. Despite the multiple avenues of public participation they utilized to voice their disapproval, the Rito Seco mine was approved at the federal and state levels, and began operation in 1992[4].



This aerial photograph from Water and Environmental Justice: Acequias in Colorado – Part 1 of 3 shows the Rito Seco mining operation toward the top and right and the town of San Luis in the bottom left corner[4].


The Period of Contamination

In the fall of 1998, just two years after the closure of the mine, the tailings pile began to leak numerous dangerous chemicals into Rito Seco Creek. Officials from the State Division of Minerals and Geology had ordered the company to obtain a discharge permit, as they did not have any permission to allow any discharge from the mine into the creek[2]. The company was allowed to ignore this order by the state for over a year until the EPA was able to go through the process of testing, examining and deciding that this seepage was in violation of the Clean Water Act[2]. After receiving an order to cease and desist, the company was required to build a water treatment plant for the contaminated water coming from the mine, which they did[2]. During this time period, citizens downstream who found out about the contamination voiced their opinions to the appropriate state and federal organizations, as well as to the company, but were left powerless to address the health hazard in their water through any further form of public participation[6].

After the order was received from the EPA, Battle Mountain Gold company employees and state officials met with county officials in private in order to inform them as to the details of the contamination and the plan for addressing it. The Costilla County Conservation District, an entity representing the interests of the citizens opposed to the mine, sued the county commission board for violating Colorado’s Open Meetings Law. The court found that no law was violated as no policy was being created, simply information was being shared by the state agencies and Battle Mountain Gold Co[1]. This court case represents an attempt by the affected citizens to increase their ability to participate in the sharing of information by and resulting decision making of government and company officials.


The Inadequecy of Public Participation

Since the company has addressed the water contamination issue, their operation is once again completely legal and they have been allowed to return to their reclamation process that the people of San Luis continue to oppose. This case is clearly an illustration of the inadequacies of the public participation framework for addressing issues of environmental justice. While the disadvantaged majority Hispanic community in San Luis has been active in opposing the mining and reclamation operations of Battle Mountain Gold in various ways, the company has still been able to run an operation that clearly poses hazards to that community. The ability to be included in the public process has rightfully given a voice to the downstream acequia community, however it still has not done enough to protect them. This illustrates how working within our current economic and political system will not result in the level of environmental justice that is truly just. To achieve this goal, alternative frameworks of environmental justice, such as the creation of basic rights to a clean environment and the inclusion of ecologically sustainable practices in our economic philosophies, must be pursued in addition to increased public participation.


  1. “BD. OF CTY. COMM. v. COSTILLA CTY. CONS. DIST, 88 P.3d 1188 (Colo. 2004) | Casetext.” N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
  1. Martínez, Maclovio. Potter, Lori. Flynn, Roger. “OHBC News Releases.” 11 Aug. 1999. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
  1. Shore, Sandy. “Gold Mine Stirs Debate Over Environment and a Way of Life.” Los Angeles Times 8 Mar. 1992. LA Times. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
  1. Peña, Devon G. “Water and Environmental Justice: Acequias in Colorado – Part 1 of 3.” 3 Apr. 2013. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
  1. Torres, Gerald. Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications. Island Press, 2001. Print.
  1. Pena, Devon Gerardo. Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin. University of Arizona Press, 1998. Print.



Gold King Mine Spill and the Navajo Nation

Another example in the long line of injustices against the Navajo Nation, over 2,000 Navajo farmers have been unable to use their normal water stream in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill of 2015.[1] On August 5th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was checking up on Gold King, attempting to clear debris from the long closed mine. Not following protocol in multiple instances, 3 million gallons of toxic water were released into the Animas River, turning it a vile shade of yellow.[2]

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald 08/06/15-Durango - Mine waste from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton fills the Animas River at Bakers Bridge on Thursday morning.

Animas River in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, August 2015. (Jerry McBride, Durango Herald)

This pernicious water stream began in Silverton, Colorado, an old mining town that has fallen on tough times. At its peak in the early 20th century, Silverton was thriving; 2,000 of its residents worked for one of the many mines in the area. However, this prosperity is fickle in the mining industry and eventually the amount of jobs dried up and people were forced to find other sources of income. Considering the vast beauty of the American West, becoming a tourism spot often bears a fruitful source of income. Towns such as Breckenridge, Aspen and Telluride have all adapted out of mining into popular tourism destinations that boast world class skiing and hiking.

Silverton, on the other hand, has had a tough time letting go of its mining past. Johnathan Thompson of High Country News described the sentiment of one local: “He mourned the loss not just of jobs and money, but also of authenticity and, in a way, identity. Mining is real, genuine palpable; tourism is entertainment.”[3] Sympathy can be felt towards the people of Silverton for their loss of identity, but mining has a far greater impact on the surrounding environment and has the power to harm many communities located outside of the Silverton area. Even as late as 2014, a mining company, Colorado Goldfields, existed with the purpose of revitalizing the mining industry in and around Silverton. Companies like Colorado Goldfields have prevented the local mines from receiving Superfund status, which designates especially detrimental areas and provides the necessary resources to clean them. This nostalgia and disregard for the environment has left many downstream communities feeling the burden of this harmful industry.

In the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater flowed down from the Animas River, eventually merging into the San Juan River. The San Juan River flows through the land of the Navajo Nation, who have faced a multitude of environmental injustices over the course of their history. Currently, there are around 1,100 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation land causing detrimental long term health effects.


Spill path of toxic water into New Mexico and Utah. (Lorena Iñiguez Elebee, Los Angeles Times)

As mentioned above, over 2,000 farmers have lost their water stream, causing crops to dry up. In the little over one year that has passed since the spill, the Navajo Nation feel that the EPA has not done an adequate job in the clean up and restoration of the affected areas, and have even filed a lawsuit against the agency.[4] The EPA has not done enough testing on the river sediment, which could cause long term health effects. One Navajo local from Mexican Water, Utah, was skeptical of the EPA conclusions: “We know this river. We know the sediment moves slowly and that the worst of the pollution is yet to come.”

That same community of Mexican Water had not seen any help from the EPA for months after the spill. This area is very isolated, there are no nearby paved roads and the nearest grocery store is 35 miles away. Even areas that saw relief from the EPA complained that the quality was not up to their standards. Water is sacred to the Navajo; they use it in its pure form for many religious ceremonies. Therefore, they have still not deemed the San Juan river water usable, even if the EPA has said otherwise.

Who is to blame for this environmental disaster? The EPA has taken responsibility for the spill, but do they deserve 100% of the criticism? Ethel Branch, the attorney general of the Navajo Nation, stated, ”From the very beginning, the EPA tried to shift the conversation to the overwhelming nature of dealing with abandoned hard rock mines in the West, in my view to dilute the significance of what occurred and the need for them to be accountable and to clean up the contamination or address it in some way.” Silverton residents have fought for the revitalization of the mining industry, even in recent years. Fearing the stigma of Superfund status, residents rejected the EPA’s help multiple times.[5] However, Ms. Branch brings up a fair point. Just because the EPA was put in a tough cleanup position does not discount the problems of the Navajo Nation. They still do not have a reliable water stream for farming or religious activities. The burden of responsibility lies with both the EPA and the mining community of Silverton. A higher priority needs to be placed on cleanup efforts in the Navajo Nation as they are a low income community that was not at all responsible for this environmental disaster.