Courtesy La Plata County
After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released three million gallons of contaminated wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Silverado, Colorado, into the Animas River, above, it flowed from there to the Juan River, through the Navajo Nation.

EPA Must Do More After Gold King Mine Spill: Navajo Nation

Alysa Landry

Despite two grants for cleanup and water monitoring totaling nearly $1.5 million, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed the Navajo people in the months since crews breached the Gold King Mine in Colorado and unleashed three million gallons of toxic wastewater.

That’s according to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, who has criticized the EPA since the federal agency delayed notifying Navajo leaders of the August 2015 spill, which dumped 880,000 pounds of heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and lead into the Animas and San Juan rivers. The spill came right before the harvest, and Navajo farmers and ranchers suffered economic blows when the river and irrigation canals turned a lurid orange with mine waste and were shut down for the season.

Although the EPA on June 9 announced a second wave of funding for water quality monitoring—following a $1 million grant awarded in October—Begaye said the federal agency has still failed to make the Navajo people whole.

“The U.S. EPA seeks press for taking small steps and half measures almost a full year after the Gold King Mine spill,” he said in a June 14 statement, which came in response to the EPA’s announcement that it would award $465,000 to the Nation. “In the meantime, the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people continue to suffer as a result of the U.S. EPA’s actions. The time has long passed for the U.S. EPA to act responsibly and fulfill their legal and moral obligations to the Navajo Nation.”

Despite repeated requests for help on the part of farmers and ranchers, the Navajo people are still waiting for relief, Begaye said. The San Juan River is a 383-mile tributary that flows through portions of four states and a significant part of the Navajo Nation before emptying into Lake Powell.

But Margot Perez-Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the EPA’s San Francisco office, said the EPA has prioritized the Navajo Nation’s claims.

“Protecting public health and the environment are the agency’s top priorities,” Perez-Sullivan wrote in an e-mail. “These funds will help EPA and the Navajo EPA understand the health of the San Juan River watershed, a resource of vital importance in the region.”

In an April letter to Begaye, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency has spent more than $22 million on response efforts, including $1.1 million for agricultural water and hay for Navajo communities along the San Juan River. The Nation also received $157,000 in March to reimburse its agencies for response costs, McCarthy said.

“The EPA recognizes that the San Juan River also has great spiritual and cultural significance to the Navajo Nation,” she said in her letter. “Please know that I am committed to continuing our longstanding partnership to protect and restore the river and other vital resources on the Navajo Nation.”

Yet 10 months after the spill, Navajo officials are still trying to determine the extent of the contamination. Although the river now appears normal, and use restrictions have been lifted, many farmers and ranchers are still wary of water quality and unsure of what pollutants might be lurking in the sediment.

“We definitely have to keep monitoring the river,” said Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates, who lives in Upper Fruitland, New Mexico, and relies on the river for his own livestock. “We still don’t know the scope of the spill.”

The EPA has taken full responsibility for the spill, which occurred when crews were working to secure the abandoned mine, located near Silverton, Colorado. The Gold King Mine has been inactive since 1920, and workers underestimated the pressure built up behind debris at the mine’s entrance. When they removed too much debris, the roof ruptured, sending toxic waste cascading into the Animas, and ultimately the San Juan.

RELATED: Toxic River Spill Flowing Across Navajo Nation Is 3 Million Gallons, Not One: EPA

The incident triggered outrage from three states and several tribes affected by the toxins. It also led to a series of Congressional hearings and an U.S. Department of the Interior investigation, which concluded that the EPA was negligent and failed to properly address the danger of a potential blowout.

RELATED: McCain Demands Criminal Probe of EPA for Gold King Mine Spill on Navajo Land

The latest funding award came two weeks after the New Mexico Environment Department filed a lawsuit against the EPA, an agency contractor and two mining companies for releasing the toxins into the water. In a statement issued with the 51-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, Attorney General Hector Balderas said the discharge caused “catastrophic environmental, public health and economic damage” to individuals.

RELATED: New Mexico to Sue EPA Over Gold King Mine Spill

The lawsuit seeks reimbursement for cleanup costs and damages, as well as a court order requiring the agency to prevent future spills. There are more than 4,000 abandoned mines in Colorado, including about 1,100 in the Silverton area.

“The release of hazardous substances into waters that are the lifeblood of our economy and culture in New Mexico has had a devastating impact on our historical rural, agricultural and tribal communities,” Balderas said in his statement. “Remediation and compensations dollars have been far too minimal for these very special agricultural and cultural communities who depend on this precious water for irrigation and drinking.”

Meanwhile, individuals who live closest to the river—and rely on it for their livelihoods—are still in the dark about potential dangers, Bates said.

“We still don’t know if it’s safe to use,” Bates said. “We’re monitoring the level of possible contaminants and watching to see if they exceed limits. Our concern right now is for the future of the river.”

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