Twitter users this week were quick to call out Arizona Senator John McCain for his statements about the Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of the Animas River spill during a meeting of the bipartisan Indian Affairs subcommittee.
“Don't even try to say you care . . . you hypocrite,” one user wrote.
“If you really cared about Native Americans, you wouldn’t have helped sell their sacred land #ResolutionCopper,” tweeted another.
The response came after McCain promoted a video showing his relentless questioning of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy over what he called her agency’s failure to notify and then provide adequate assistance to the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute tribes in the days after a blowout at the Gold King Mine in Colorado on August 5. At the time of the blowout, the EPA and its hired contractors were attempting to seal the mine to prevent future discharge, but then something went wrong.
The spill sent more than 3 million gallons of toxic mining waste into tribes' water systems and left thousands of farmers without water to irrigate their fields or give to their livestock. The spill destroyed the agricultural season for many families along the San Juan River, and even now, more than month later, the long-term environmental and economic impacts remain unclear.
By all accounts, the EPA bears a lot of responsibility. Yet despite hearing McCarthy say again and again that the EPA is holding itself responsible for the spill — but that she and others are waiting for the results of an independent review from the Department of the Interior before taking any punitive actions against specific employees — McCain couldn’t stop asking about accountability.
“I understand . . . that no one from the EPA or its contractors has been fired. Is that right?” he asked.
“That is correct,” she replied, having already answered the same question at least four times that day.
“Has anyone been fired for taking almost two days to notify the Navajo about the disaster?”
“I might dispute that [timetable] a little,” she began to say before McCain cut her off.
“No, two days it took for the Navajos to be notified.”
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye would later testify that it took the EPA one day to notify him about the spill, an amount of time that everyone agrees is unacceptable but still a far cry from the full two days McCain claims it took.
“Has anyone been fired for the Navajos' complaint that the notification and emergency response was inadequate?” McCain asked McCarthy.
“I’m not saying that it shouldn’t have been quicker and more comprehensive. We’re working with the state on that. We’re going to update our . . .,” she said before McCain cut her off again.
“So your answer is no. Has anyone been fired at the EPA for complaints that the EPA did not quickly and routinely share water-quality monitoring data with the tribes?"
“We believe that we’ve done a good job at providing transparent . . .”
“You believe that, but the tribes don’t,” he fired back. He spoke at length about the damage the spill caused on the Navajo Nation, and mentioned hearing about it first hand during a trip he took there last month.
“I can assure [the committee] that the Navajo are suffering deeply and dearly,” he said, claiming their plight is very important to him.
Again, Twitter users were not going to let this one slide. McCain is known for a lot of things, but having a positive working relationship with tribal communities isn’t one of them.
As New Times wrote last month, McCain may have met with tribal leaders behind closed doors, but he received the opposite of a warm welcome from a large group of young native activists who say they “chased McCain off the reservation.” (McCain disputes this account.)
In the aftermath of the spill, talk was about how something like this could even happen in the first place. The answer, many concluded, lies in federal statute.
“The EPA alone is not responsible for this disaster. For decades we’ve allowed the mining companies to strip valuable resources with no plan to reclaim the landscape. And yet, we get surprised, we get angry when [something like this happens,” Montana U.S. Senator John Tester stated.
“This is the legacy of the 1872 mining law. A law that encouraged exploration for hard rock minerals but did nothing to compensate the public for the extraction of valuable minerals. And on top of that, it did nothing to require mines to clean up after they finish,” New Mexico U.S. Senator Tom Udall added.
McCain made no reference to the mining law, nor did he point out that the EPA was actively attempting to clean up a toxic mess left by the mining industry. This apparently did not surprise Twitter users, and some made reference to his track record of prioritizing mining interests over the tribes.
The most notable and recentd example being his unwavering support for copper mining in Oak Flat, a sacred tribal area and popular recreational spot near Superior.
“Tell me something, Administrator,” McCain began, furrowing his brow and giving his chin a quick stroke. “If a mining company caused an accident like this, maybe you can submit for the record what kind of penalties, fines, enforcement, action that the EPA would levy?”
McCain didn’t actually allow her to answer: “Don’t you think that someone is responsible for the action that happened? An accident happened, a river was polluted, people were not notified. We all know what happened. Why is it that you’re saying that you don’t know that anyone was responsible? Someone has to be.”
He finally let her talk.
“I’m not saying that the acts of the agency did not cause the accident," she said, "but accidents by their very nature may not have resulted from any negligence whatsoever on the part of anybody.”
“You really believe — you really believe — that the spill could have been no negligence on the part of anyone?” he shot back, his face breaking into a grin of incredulousness.
“I believe that we went in there with the state of Colorado having fully vetted this work plan with mining experts from the area," she said, "as well as [with] the public. And apparently all of the experts agreed this was the next step to take . . . That judgment was obviously incorrect. But whether or not they did due diligence in coming to that conclusion...”
He cut her off again and called her answer just a “classic” EPA response.
“Here we are with a disaster of incredible proportions, and you don’t think [it’s been] determined if anybody is responsible?”
“I’m not trying to defend anybody, sir, but we went in . . ."
“But you haven’t done anything . . . This is really classic on your part, I must say.”
“Well, sir . . ”
“Someone is responsible . . . and someone should be held responsible because it happened. Maybe [you had] the best of intentions, Administrator McCarthy, but the fact is it happened, and so far no one has been held responsible except ‘the agency.’”
McCain hardly glanced up from his notes before declaring: “I have no more questions.”
Watch the video below:
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