Federal Government Lets Navajo Nation Down After EPA Mine Spill

Russell Begaye President, Navajo Nation
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Last week investigators from the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could have prevented the Gold King Mine spill that has devastated the Navajo Nation. The investigation concluded that, despite assurances from the EPA, the blow out could have been avoided if water levels inside the mine had been checked before work began on the abandon mine.

The EPA had fair warning that the Gold King Mine and other mines in the area posed a threat. In fact, in 2005 they performed a National Priorities List assessment where the study confirmed, for the second time, that the mine should qualify as a Superfund site. However the EPA, and other responsible parties, neglected to act, disregarding the facts with respect to the level of harm posed to downstream communities like the Navajo Nation.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the Gold King Mine spill of three million gallons of toxic sludge and the resulting contamination of the Animas and San Juan rivers has been a disaster. The Navajo Nation is used to historical mistreatment by agencies of the federal government, but the inadequate and delayed response to the contamination of our rivers and the utter lack of accountability takes that sentiment to a whole new level. When that threat became reality, they waited nearly two days to inform the Nation that a spill had occurred, then waited six full days to take responsibility and apologize.

The EPA’s eventual “response” was to provide our communities with tanks of impure water for our livestock and crops. And now, FEMA is denying our request for a declared state of emergency. Our people have suffered immeasurably due to the reckless actions of the EPA and other responsible parties (who have yet to be held accountable), and the government’s failed response to this crisis only adds insult to injury. Our irrigation systems are still shut down, and our analysis shows that the water is not yet safe for consumption or crop irrigation. The Navajo Nation’s Environmental Protection Agency has found lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium and beryllium, contaminants known to be toxic to humans and animals, still present in our rivers. Our people and our land are devastated. With high unemployment on the Navajo Nation and almost all Navajo families relying on subsistence farming, our lack of access to clean water to grow our crops is catastrophic.

We’ve lost trust in the EPA, whose response has been marked by a lack of transparency. There’s a real conflict of interest with them remaining in charge of the investigation and emergency response. Just like we wouldn’t let a corporate company like BP independently investigate themselves after a big oil spill and determine appropriate reparations, we need an independent body to assess the level of damage and determine the best course of action. We have asked for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) but have been rejected and referred back to the EPA.

What we need is for the EPA to spend less time worrying about itself and more time focused on cleaning up the Animas and San Juan rivers. We need President Obama to take action to fix this disaster. The Navajo Nation needs full, fair and prompt disaster relief and assistance providing our farmers with clean, safe water supplies for our crops and our livestock. We need every resource possible to address the damage caused by this devastation.