Navajo Nation Sues Federal Government for Gold King Mine Spill

One year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spilled 3 million gallons of toxic mining waste into the Animas River, the Navajo Nation is suing the agency in federal court for the millions of dollars' worth of damages it has incurred.

On August 5, 2015, a contractor hired by the EPA made an engineering mistake that ended up causing a breach in the long-abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. A bright yellow plume of toxic waste poured into the Animas River and flowed south into the San Juan River, which cuts across the northern part of the Navajo Nation and provides water for hundreds of farmers and ranchers.

With an estimated 880,000 pounds of heavy metals dissolved in the plume, leaders of the Navajo Nation turned off irrigation water for communities along the San Juan. By all accounts, it was a prudent move, but without water, farming was impossible, and the community lost millions of dollars – not to mention untold environmental and psychological damage.

Though the EPA took full responsibility and promised to reimburse farmers, little progress has been made, and many continue to feel the impact of the spill every day.

"After a year of trusting, waiting to see if EPA would live up to its promises and hold themselves accountable, and then seeing no action and only pennies on the dollar, today we have come to this point of having to go this route of suing the U.S. government," Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said at a press conference held this morning to announce the lawsuit.

Standing on the north bank of the San Juan River in Shiprock, New Mexico, one of communities most affected by the spill, Begaye demanded that the EPA fulfill its promise. "It's time that they step up, it's time that we as a nation stand together and go after this federal protection agency that has basically abandoned its title," he said.

"Some of the effects of the Gold King Mine spill have already been felt. But the true toll on the Navajo economy, the Navajo people, and the Navajo way of life will be borne for years to come," the lawsuit states.

The Navajo Nation is not the first entity to go after the EPA for the Gold King spill, nor is it likely to be the last.

Earlier this year, the state of New Mexico sued the EPA for causing economic damages and environmental harm.

An EPA spokeswoman tells New Times that the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.

In the past year, the EPA has spent $29 million in response to the spill, about $1 million of which has gone to the Navajo Nation. But in his address to the public Tuesday morning, Begaye said that amount is nowhere near enough.

"We sought full recovery from EPA for the full costs incurred by Navajo Nation … but we have not received it," he said. 
According to the lawsuit, which also names seven contractors and mine operators affiliated with the Gold King Mine, the tribe seeks "full, fair, and long overdue compensation for the injuries that occurred and continue to occur within the Nation’s territory."

No dollar amount is listed, though Begaye estimates the spill caused tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars in economic damages alone.

"Today, we still don't know the full impact of the Gold King Mine spill and its effect on people, but we know most of the heavy metals remains in the river … EPA told us that the river is clean and safe, but we know from what has happened in other parts of the country that you cannot take the chance. Even when officials say the water is clean, long-term testing will need to be done to determine the water is safe," Begaye said.

"EPA, we're holding your feet to the fire, we will not let you get away with this … The importance of the river to the Navajo way of life cannot be overstated. This is our lifeline. This is our river."

That's not to say everyone is thrilled at the prospect of a lawsuit.

Though it has drawn praise from many politicians — including Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who is running for Congress in a district that includes part of the Navajo Nation, and U.S. Sen. John McCain – some people closest to the day-to-day consequences of the spill are worried that the lawsuit will do little to help.

"Yes, this is good news that the Navajo Nation is taking this action, but my thought from the outset was that the Navajo Nation should have taken a different tactic," says Duane "Chili" Yazzie, chapter president of the Shiprock Community on the Navajo Nation Reservation.

Yazzie says he and others in his community feel there was a point last August when the tribe and the EPA could have sat down and hammered out some sort of deal for compensation and cleanup.
"I think that if that had happened, the Navajo Nation and EPA would have a piece of paper with some federal obligations clearly spelled out that would have assured that there would be federal resources out here. But instead of going that route, President Begaye just blurted outright that the Navajo Nation was going to sue the EPA," Yazzie says. "And the threat of a lawsuit put the whole thing to a stalemate, so now EPA is not being very responsive, at least here at the ground level in terms of individual farmers and ranchers."

Begaye first mentioned a lawsuit after the spill in August and since then has not backed down on his determination to hold the EPA accountable in federal court.

Bottom line, Yazzie says, "This business of suing the federal government is going to be a tremendous use of resources, very significant amount of dollars and time. And this thing is going to get dragged out for many years. If the Navajo Nation prevails in this lawsuit, it's not something that we'll know for years. Suing the federal government is a very unpredictable situation — you might win, you might lose — and that's just a terrible waste of resources when people are suffering at the ground level."

But what's done is done, Yazzie said, adding, "All that we can do at this point is support the lawsuit and hope for the best."
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser