FEMA May Deploy Response Team to Navajo Nation Following Mine Spill

One day after Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye formally requested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency help his government deal with the fallout of last month’s Gold King Mine spill, the FEMA team from Region IX is set to meet and discuss a possible response.

Begaye’s letter specifically requested a federal disaster recovery coordinator, a FEMA-designated point person that helps coordinate federal and state assistance resources and implement a recovery plan.

“The FDRC could assist the Nation to effectively assess the short- and long-term impact of the disaster, determine priorities, and activate a recovery support strategy,” Begaye’s letter states.

FEMA spokesman John Hamill confirms that sending an FDRC is certainly one of many options the agency will discuss at its meeting this afternoon, but that the overall conversation will be about “the best way [to move] forward.”

There are a few tricky details to work out, too, Hamill explains, because what Begaye has requested is somewhat unprecedented when it comes to FEMA’s typical response procedure.

FEMA derives its authority to respond to a disaster from the Stafford Act, which stipulates that FEMA resources can be deployed after the president declares a national disaster. According to Hamill, since President Obama never declared one, “FEMA usually wouldn’t be involved in a situation like this.”

That’s not to say “an FDRC can’t be deployed without a national disaster declaration,” he adds. “We just want to figure out [the details].”

On August 5, an EPA cleanup effort went awry and accidentally released more than 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River. The sludge was carried hundreds of miles downstream and ended up in the San Juan River, which flows through the northern section of the Navajo Nation.

Following the spill, Begaye made national headlines by declaring his intention to sue the EPA; it’s a promise he appears to be keeping, as his office announced earlier this week that it chose a law firm to represent the tribe in a lawsuit.

The EPA said it would remedy the situation and has led the massive recovery effort, but still some in the Navajo Nation don't believe the agency is doing enough, or that more help is needed.

Thousands of Navajo farmers have either lost crops or had their yields diminished after the tribal government shut off irrigation water from the San Juan River, and leaders warn of big economic losses.

Despite farmers' complaints, Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency director Donald Benn has determined that the river water is safe for limited irrigation use, and Begaye lifted irrigation restrictions for the Upper Fruitland, San Juan, and Nenahnezad chapters of the Nation. The ban on using the water for livestock still remains in place, and the Shiprock Chapter has voted not to use it on crops.
“This expansion [of pollutants] into Navajo lands via the San Juan River has critically impacted the River and its dependent ecosystems, including wildlife, fish, [human] populations, and the land base adjacent to the River. The nature of this toxic chemical spill will acutely and chronically impact the River and dependent ecosystem if immediate and effective corrective actions and remedies are not taken,” Begaye writes.

The Navajo Nation EPA and tribal government have worked with the federal EPA to address lingering issues, but according to Begaye, “The appointment of an FDRC by FEMA at this stage of the Nation’s response to this toxic chemical spill would greatly benefit the Nation.”

In Begaye’s estimation, “an FDRC could assist the Nation to effectively assess the short- and long-term impact of the disaster, determine priorities, and activate a recovery support strategy,” coordinate assistance with other federal agencies, and help to get a “team of recovery specialists” involved.

“We haven’t said yes, and we haven’t said no,” says Hamill, adding that FEMA certainly will work with local experts to at least assess the damage.

“But I don’t know if [the agency] will pull the trigger [and] make a decision [about sending assistance] today because it’s kind of new territory.” 
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser