The Federal Emergency Management Agency has rejected a plea from the Navajo Nation for assistance in dealing with the fallout from the August 5 Gold King Mine spill that sent more than three million gallons of toxic wastewater downstream into critical Navajo waterways.
In a letter containing almost no details or explanation, FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate informed Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye that the agency was denying his request because, Fugate wrote, “It has been determined that the vast majority of the response and recovery efforts for this event fall under the authorities of other federal agencies.”
(Fugate did not specify which agencies, and officials in the regional FEMA office did not respond to a request for comment.)
On September 1, Begaye appealed to FEMA for help with cleanup and crisis management because the “toxic chemical spill [that] has expanded into Navajo lands…via the San Juan River has critically impacted the River and its dependent ecosystems including wildlife, fish
populations, and the land base adjacent to the River.”
Begaye also explained in the letter that the spill has devastated “the crops and livestock of the Nation’s farmers and ranchers whose produce support families and communities,” a problem New Times has documented before.
At the time of the spill, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was working to plug a hole in the abandoned Gold King Mine, but the effort went awry, and the agency ended up unleashing huge quantities of toxic sludge. The iconic bright-orange plume made its way down the Animas River and into waterways that flow through the Northern Navajo Nation.
Though the EPA technically has been tasked with the cleanup process, Begaye explains in his letter that he’s interested in FEMA’s crisis-management expertise — many in the Navajo Nation are skeptical of the EPA’s work, particularly after it delivered farmers huge quantities of water that was purportedly tainted with an oily substance.
When New Times spoke with the regional FEMA spokesman, John Hamill, last month, his agency had just received Begaye’s letter, and actively was discussing whether to follow through on the request.
He mentioned that because President Obama did not declare the spill a national disaster, there were a few tricky statutory details to work out.
FEMA’s authority to respond to a disaster comes from the Stafford Act, which stipulates that the agency’s resources can be deployed after the president declares a national disaster. Because that didn’t happen, “FEMA usually wouldn’t be involved in a situation like this,” Hamill explained, adding that this didn't preclude a FEMA response — “We [would] just want to figure out [the details]."
Though the specifics of why FEMA rejected the request remain unclear, Begaye released a statement Thursday calling FEMA’s letter “disappointing and wrong" and blasting the Obama administration for ignoring the plight this spill fomented on the Navajo Nation:
“Our people have suffered due to the reckless actions of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the federal government's failed response to this crisis has only added insult to injury. The Obama Administration has turned down virtually every request we have made for greater assistance, each time referring us back to the EPA – the same agency that caused the problem in the first place,” Begaye writes.
“What is wrong with Obama? Another slap in the face to Native Americans. Sickening,” one Facebook user writes about FEMA’s decision.
Others on social media were also furious about the decision:
"Unbelievable. This is an outrage. I'm ready to protest," one twitter user writes.
"What in the actual fuck?? Yeah no emergency here, just some natives with no drinkable water," tweets another.
Days after Begaye’s request, Arizona U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake sent a letter to Obama urging him to review the request and respond appropriately.
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Begaye stated earlier this month that “President Obama not only been slow to respond to our request for additional assistance, he has not acknowledged the damage that the U.S. EPA and other responsible parties have caused to the Navajo Nation.” Begaye declared his intention to sue the EPA.
Begay's administration does not appear ready to back down on his mission to get restitution:
“The Navajo Nation will appeal FEMA's ill-advised decision and fight for every resource possible to address the damage caused by the Gold King Mine spill," Begaye writes.
"As President, I will not rest until our people have been made whole and fairly compensated for their losses."